By Marlana Ward
Much discussion and some debate happened as the Johnson County Commissioners met in regular session on May 17, 2018. While the majority of the meeting was business as usual, one topic brought up before the group led to more questioning and concern than is usually encountered at the monthly meetings. Commission Chairman Mike Taylor asked County Mayor Larry Potter to present the topic, and Mayor Potter introduced UT Extension County Director Rick Thomason who would further explain the item.
Thomason began by sharing that for over a year, he and representatives from the county and local agricultural organizations had been exploring the feasibility of a Johnson County Ag Center. The center would serve as a formal meeting place to allow for banquets and group meetings hosting larger numbers of participants. The building would also be made available to other organizations as approved by the county.
Thomason explained that he and Mayor Potter had been in communication with the State of Tennessee Department of Agriculture and they had agreed to a $150,000 matching grant to use towards the project if the county decided to pursue the project. He added that they had also spoken to representatives from the USDA who seemed supportive of the project and had forecasted that they might be able to provide a grant between $40,000 to $80,000. The USDA could not make a binding agreement until the project was officially underway and paperwork submitted.
When asked about possible locations for the center, Thomason stated that after discussions with Mayor Potter and Commissioner George Lowe, a field in front of the industrial park on Highway 67 was the best option for the project. Given the property’s flat surface and highway access, it was believed to be a very suitable choice for a center with ample parking. The county owns the property and is currently under lease to a local farmer for raising corn.
The commissioners and other county officials had questions about the costs of the project and were concerned about the county committing to the $150,000 match amount required by the TN Department of Agriculture grant. “We have to discuss the grant match,” County Accounting and Budget Director Russell Robinson reminded.
“We are entering into a contract and have to show where that money is coming from.”
Thomason told the commissioners that he had also been speaking with someone from Farm Credit about a possible donation towards the ag center as they had recently assisted Sullivan County in building a similar building.The appraised value of the proposed property designated by the county for the project could be used towards the county’s portion of the match and that it was also hoped that any funds given by the USDA could be used towards the match.
After a comment, regarding the financial ethics of politicians, the discussion took a strange turn. The remark drew a quick rebuttal comparing the integrity of local politicians to that of the local clergy. Much chatter and responses of varying degrees then erupted around the courtroom as Commission Chairman Mike Taylor used the gavel on the judge’s bench to bring the meeting back to order and to continue the discussion at hand without personal disagreements between any parties.
Several of the commissioners voiced their concern about the financial commitment but agreed to allow further exploration of the idea. Commissioner George Lowe made the motion to authorize Mayor Potter to begin applying for grants and gathering cost estimates for the commission to review and decide upon later. After ensuring that no official commitment or contract would be entered into by the mayor’s office until approval by the commission was voted upon and received, all commissioners in attendance voted in favor to proceed.