The Driver Testing Center is one vote away from staying parked for another year.
Both the McMinnville Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Warren County Commission met Monday and approved funding to pay $4,000 a month rent on the building, a stipulation by the state in order to prevent its closure.
City officials will meet again June 27 for the second and final read on the measure, meaning the fate of the center to remain in Warren County is not a done deal.
While County Commissioners unanimously voted 24-0 to once again reimburse the city half the cost, city officials were split 4-3 in their decision. Aldermen Kate Alsbrook, Ryle Chastain and Ben Newman voted to enter into the agreement with the state. Aldermen Everett Brock, Mike Neal and Steve Harvey voted against it. Mayor Jimmy Haley, who negotiated the deal, voted for it.
Newman, who voted against a two-year agreement June 13, voted in favor of a one-year deal June 19 and said he contacted surrounding counties for financial assistance and their response was favorable.
“When I talked to each of the county officials, I informed them the city would be paying the state the $4,000 and the county would be reimbursing us half of that,” said Newman. “Although this was my idea and not approved by the board, I told them that what I could see happening is… Let’s say Grundy County gave $200 a month toward this, $100 would go to the city and $100 would go toward the county. That way it would reimburse both of us.”
Brock said he would accept the board’s decision, but expressed a desire to sway at least one vote in order to defeat the measure – due to himself, Neal and Harvey being vocal against funding the facility.
“The state told us they were going to close the center about a year and a half ago,” said Brock. “We as a city offered space for the center at City Hall. We agreed to make renovations and do what was necessary to keep the Driver Center here. As we got to working with the state, it seemed they put up every roadblock in our path to sink this project. When it became apparent this was not what the state wanted, just to give lip service to it, we tried a different approach. Grudgingly, me included, we agreed to fund the reopening of the center for the rest of last year, with generous help from the county.”
State representatives gave assurances full funding would be restored in the 2017-18 fiscal year budget. It was not.
“Just think about it,” said Brock. “When were you at the Drivers License Center last? I can’t remember the last time I was there. I’m 73 years old. I can’t remember being in that place. This is the state’s responsibility and as long as we are willing to pay the bills, there’s never going to be any funding – this year or five years down the road. That’s my opinion. With a $2 billion in surplus, they are laughing at us. ‘We’ve got these guys willing to pay for it, even though we have $2 billion sitting right here.’”
Brock said the fight is over and voting to approve funding is only a political statement for voter support.
“We aren’t putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “The pig is on the grill. As soon as we understand this, the better. When they come back and deny us again, are we going to keep doing this and keep doing this? I don’t think so. It might be politically correct for you to vote for this funding, but it’s not the right thing to do. We need to stand up for what’s right and not worry about our future on this board. This is a bad idea, folks. I know it’s going to prevent a hardship, but let’s lay the thing out so that the state under-stands this. They aren’t going to understand it, if we fund it. They are going to continue and continue and continue to let us fund it.”
Haley urged the board to approve the measure.
“We’ve got to use this in order to buy us some time in order to move forward with this,” said Haley. “There are no guarantees on anything. There’s no guarantee that a change in government will make a difference. I think this is the right thing for our citizens. The hardship it will place on the majority of folks that are unable to drive out of town, young people getting drivers licenses, or the elderly that don’t drive anymore and have to have voter IDs. I’m assured our residents, for the large part, believe this is an important enough service to preserve.”
Harvey said he agrees with Brock the state will allow city officials to fund the Driver Center as long as they are willing to put forth the money, and he addressed a question from the public.
“I’ve seen the question asked on social media, by text and by phone, ‘How can we spend $24,000 on sod at the soccer field and not spend $24,000 to continue the Drivers Center?’ The simple answer to that, to me, is the city of McMinnville is responsible for putting sod on the soccer field. To me, that’s what this whole issue boils down to. The state of Tennessee is responsible for funding the Drivers Center,” said Harvey.
Neal expressed irritation at being told last week by Haley that if the agreement is changed in any way or rejected, the center will close, but now there’s a new agreement for consideration.
“I’ve been amazed at this whole process,” said Neal. “We are told one night that it’s one deal or nothing and then suddenly, amazingly, there is a new deal that can be done. I’ve also been told the day after the last vote that the mayor would notify the state to close the thing. I don’t know if that happened or not. Did you notify the state to close it?”
When Haley stated he did contact the state about the board’s desire to make changes to the agreement, but did not instruct them to close the center, Neal added, “This whole ordeal has been nothing but smoke and mirrors and I’m fed up with the whole thing.”
Alsbrook stated that if a change in state leadership would reinstate funding, one year will not be enough to get to that point, and if people want to punish a political figure for the center’s current situation, they should look to state elected officials.
“I do see this is a valuable service and I see it as a project we can work with the county on,” she said. “I do not, necessarily, agree with just one year. That’s not going to show the change in government, potentially. I do not think that any of us should be punished as members of this board for the way that we vote today. I think we need to look toward our state legislators and state representatives. This is on you. This is on your next election. Our citizens need to hold them accountable for this.”
Chastain said community members have asked him to vote in favor of keeping the Driver Center.
“While I share sentiments with Mr. Brock, Mr. Neal and Mr. Harvey that there have been a few naysayers telling us not to do this, it’s been overwhelming support,” said Chastain. “We were all elected to speak for the community members of McMinnville and in this case, Warren County and some of the surrounding counties as well. I’ll be voting yes simply because I was asked to by members of the community. I feel that’s what we were put in these seats to do.”
The agreement with the state can still be denied if the measure fails to pass June 27.