By Scott Robertson
The process by which the Washington County Commission writes its budget this year promises to be one of the most intriguing political shows in recent memory. Start with the clamor for new schools for Boones Creek and, to a lesser extent, Jonesborough. Then add the omnipresent objection of many taxpayers to any potential property tax increase. To that already loud and potent mix, add the county’s debt limit. Finally, sprinkle demagoguery from a select few commissioners who, at least for the last three years, have found the budget objectionable, no matter what was in it.
It may not make for good government, but the potential for political theatre is certainly there.
Then again, wouldn’t it be something if instead we somehow were to get good government and relatively little in the way of drama? To paraphrase John Lennon, you may say I’m a dreamer, but am I the only one? There does seem to be a clear path to governance.
As taxpayers, we depend on our commissioners to act in our interests. Because the budget committee (like all county committees) meets during the business day, it is difficult for most of us – at least those of us who work first shift – to attend budget committee meetings. So I would encourage every county taxpayer to contact his or her commissioner/commissioners and encourage them to attend every budget committee meeting, even if (especially if) those commissioners aren’t members of the committee.
Last year, we heard a good bit about how Mayor Dan Eldridge and Finance and Budget Director Mitch Meredith came up with a budget plan (including multiple years of tax increases) with relatively little input from the commission, or even the committee. At one Budget Committee meeting, committee member Joe Wise invoked a comparison to Nancy Pelosi, asking Eldridge, “Do we have to vote for it to find out what’s in it?”
This year’s process needs to be far removed from that one. And the start of the process has included indications it might be.
First, Eldridge has recused himself from chairing the budget committee. Veteran commissioner Joe Grandy will shoulder that responsibility. Eldridge maintains his membership on the committee, and will most assuredly take part in voting. He also nominated every member of the committee (Joe Wise is noticeably absent from its ranks this year). But Eldridge will not have anywhere near the direct power over the process he held last year.
Second, Grandy has already asked everyone who holds a stake to take an active role. Grandy expressed disappointment after last Wednesday’s opening workshop that no members of the school board were present. The committee was hearing information regarding the potential funding of school construction projects. It would have been swell if someone from the body that will determine which of those project sites will be recommended had been there to talk about it.
For that matter, it would be good to know that the school board has gotten options on the three pieces of property it is considering as the new Boones Creek school site. It would be horrible if the board were to announce which property it wanted to use as a school site, only to find that the current owners, upon learning that fact, had jacked up the price. It’s an awkward dance at best between the school board, which defines the priorities of the school system, and the county commission, which funds those schools.
It will be a lot easier if everybody’s in the same room at the same time, dancing to the same tune.
It is generally accepted at this point that Boones Creek will have to be replaced sooner than later, and the debate over whether to renovate or replace Jonesborough may get interesting. Beyond that, there are schools in Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch that are as old as the Boones Creek schools. Those rural schools are in far better shape than Boones Creek, mainly because they’ve been far less used in the last three decades or so than their Boones Creek counterpart. And they may not even have to be replaced a decade or so down the road. The population in the county is moving from rural to urban. And the rural population is getting older. The simple fact is, there may not be a need to replace both schools, when building a single building to replace both may work.
Of course there will be some who say the county should cut services before considering whether to fund capital projects, or to what extent. But the bottom line is, there’s not enough cutting to do (legally) to make much of a dent in the capital projects line.
No, our commissioners this year face the certainty of a choice they were able to run away from last year. It’s up to us to let them know we’re watching, and we’re depending on them to do the best job they can.