By Jeff Keeling
If we don’t reinvest in our community, the decision before us today and tomorrow is, ‘do you want to live in a great place, or do you just want to live in an okay place? Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson
We’re going to have to breathe deep and invest. Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge
Yeah, they said it. If Washington County and Johnson City are going to grow, which requires attracting jobs and investment, local governments must invest in education, infrastructure, amenities and more.
So said Peterson and Eldridge at a Chamber of Commerce legislative update Friday morning in Johnson City. Eldridge, who said investments in educational attainment, workforce improvement and “growing the tax base” are the county’s focus, also revealed something we all sort of knew: government revenues from taxes and other sources have been, “as flat as can be” for going on eight years.
What neither Peterson or Eldridge came right out and said was that such investment almost certainly will require some level of property tax increase. I am here to tell you that it will, and to add that not only can we afford a moderate property tax increase, we cannot afford to shy away from making the investments the leaders talked about.
I am a relatively conservative property owner who cannot abide wasteful spending, so I would be very happy to suggest that other revenue-generating options could yield enough to avoid a property tax hike. But I simply don’t believe the numbers work. Eldridge, for instance, noted that the property tax base needs $240 million a year in new residential development just to grow by 1 percent, and added that last year’s total of less than $100 million meant that with inflation, the base shrank.
Eldridge focused on the county’s $20 million fund balance as one potential source for reinvestment. But the mayor knows as well as anyone that the fund balance and historically low borrowing rates will only get you so far if investments on the order of $80 million (his number) are required.
Peterson came closer to touching the third rail, which is what tax increases amount to these days. They are political career-killers, but our society will pay the price in coming years if common sense doesn’t eventually prevail. He asked for calm when large budget investments are discussed.
“Yeah, we’ve got to have the money to do it and nobody likes to talk about taxes, nobody wants to raise taxes. But I’m here to tell you, the City of Johnson City hasn’t raised property taxes but one time in 22 years.”
Johnson City and Washington County have the lowest property tax rate of any metros in the region. It isn’t even that close. I want my grown children and my grandchildren to have an opportunity for a good life in this place. I want the kids to attend good schools and have great places to go for enriching opportunities, and I want those things for all my fellow residents. Those things aren’t free, but they’re worth the price of admission.