By Scott Robertson
When it was all said and done, the Washington County Commission accomplished some important things Monday night. Yet while substantial business was transacted, commissioners spent most of the evening listening to, and discussing, non-action items. It wasn’t by design, but it felt more like a workshop, or at times even a slightly surreal group therapy session, than a full meeting.
As we reported on page 3, the commission did vote 23-2 to back the Aerospace Park bond issue at Tri-Cities Airport. That’s a big deal not only because it’s a potential giant step forward for diversifying the regional economy, but also because many of the jobs the airport authority hopes to bring in will be filled by new, highly-paid residents of Washington County.
That the county commission would get on board when every other government in the region had approved their own roles unanimously was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, two commissioners told me they had expected a positive vote of around 14-11 or 13-12.
That commissioners funded the county’s share of backing the airport bond issue by using Boone Dam economic development funds is a stroke of good fortune or a stroke of genius. It probably depends who you ask. I say both. TVA opened the door, but the commissioners had to walk through. So the commission did guarantee its share of the indebtedness without further taxing its citizens. And since the dam is about a mile and a quarter from the west boundary of Aerospace Park, as the crow (or in this case, the MD-88) flies, the fit was perfect.
But again, much of what commanded the commission’s time and attention was non-action information – most of it good.
The meeting began with a rezoning request by a man who brought his lapdog with him into the chambers, and then brought the dog to the lectern when he spoke to the commission. No one, least of all the dog, a pleasant little scraggle named Pearl, spoke against the rezoning, which passed unanimously.
Commissioners then heard from Election Secretary Leslie Lacy regarding the redrawing of precinct boundaries necessitated by the county’s redistricting. Lacy told commissioners the election commission was using a budget of $109,000 to mail each of the county’s 74,000 registered voters cards by November 17 telling voters where they will go to cast ballots in the next election. There was a bit of grousing back and forth when Lacy said election commission members had not been invited to the Reapportionment Committee meetings two years ago to give their input. Committee member Todd Hensley and Lacy got into a back-and-forth of, “Yes, you were,” and, “No, we weren’t.” For the record, the committee meetings were open to the public.
The county commission also heard from International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah regarding a study by Americans for the Arts. The study suggests the non-profit arts and culture sector in Washington County is an $18.5 million industry with 553 full-time equivalent jobs created and $2.6 million created in local, state and federal revenues.
County Mayor Dan Eldridge then told commissioners he would not seek re-election, saying he appreciated their work on economic development and education during his two terms in office, but that he never planned on being mayor becoming a second career. Eldridge also took the opportunity to criticize the Johnson City Board of Education for its stance on county school funding.
Eldridge reported the work on two new sites at the Washington County Industrial Park should be complete next month, giving the county two more pad ready sites than it has ever had before.
Finally, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton reported the Washington County school system has been identified as an Exemplary school district by the state of Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Education breaks the state into eight regions for reporting purposes. In the Northeast Tennessee region, only Johnson City and Elizabethton City schools had a higher percentage of students in grades three through eight scoring “on-track” or “mastered” for grade-level content.
So to sum up, economic development projects are on track. Education is improving, though the funding model isn’t what the mayor would like. Then again, we’re going to have a new mayor after the next elections anyway, and all the voters should receive cards letting them know where to vote in those elections. Also, the arts are good for the community. See you next month.