By Scott Robertson
Immediately following a Washington County Commission meeting in which the commission heard two potential 10-year Capital Investment Plans from Finance Director Mitch Meredith, the Budget Committee voted to recommend one of those plans to the commission at the September meeting.
“Are we ready to pick one of these?” County Mayor Dan Eldridge asked the committee. “If so, I would like to hear a motion that we move forward with one.”
Commissioner Joe Wise, answered, “I am not.”
Wise, who represents a district within Johnson City, expressed reservations concerning his understanding that the options appeared to do more than create and fund a capital investment plan. He saw them as recommending specific funding pathways for specific projects, including projects that would require cooperation with Johnson City.
“There are two funding scenarios that made it out of committee,” Wise continued. “They are predicated – one on a greater share and one on a lesser share – on use of a rural tax. I don’t feel I have a sense of what the collaborative discussion between the city and the county would look like in identifying funding in one scenario that assumes we will be able to come up with something that’s mutually agreeable.”
Eldridge said, “You’re getting way ahead of us. What we need to decide tonight is whether to recommend to the commission to establish a capital investment plan and how to fund it.”
Wise persisted, “If that were being taken as a two-part question, I’m entirely on-board with a capital investment plan. Now the tricky part is how to fund it…The difficulty I have is in figuring out the funding options we’re exploring and how we will not coerce cooperation, but collaborate toward cooperation with the city.”
Commissioner Joe Grandy moved the debate forward by making a motion that the committee send “Option 4” to the full commission. Commissioner Rick Storey seconded that motion.
Option 4 begins with a 23-cent property tax increase this year, with two additional increases, one of 11 cents and another of four cents recommended for the fiscal years 2020 and 2023, respectively. Future commissions would have to approve those increases.
“What we’re trying to do tonight is just to establish a direction for us to begin to lead the commission, providing them with information, substantiating how all of this will work, so that the commission has the opportunity to make an informed decision when the time comes,” Eldridge said.
“We are talking about putting Option 4 on the table, and I am just taking for fact everything it outlines,” Wise said.
“And you shouldn’t,” replied Eldridge.
“Okay…” Wise said.
“You shouldn’t at all,” Eldridge said.
“So I need to vote for it to find out what’s in it?” Wise asked. “That’s what this feels like.”
“Not at all,” Eldridge replied.
Eldridge then said there would be no need to coerce Johnson City into anything, as the city would not be asked for any concessions under Option 4.
“Well, I would rather have that as a discussion with the city than on the front page of the newspaper,” Wise said.
“We’ve already had that discussion,” Eldridge said.
“Not with anybody I’ve been able to find at the city in recent time,” Wise retorted. “I’ve not been able to find a city commissioner who has any knowledge of those conversations.”
Wise then went back to his objection that neither the committee nor the commission seemed likely to have adequate time to consider all aspects of the plan. “We’re talking about seeing funding alternatives that came before this committee five days ago that were presented to us after the meeting was called to order. All those scenarios vary in a number of assumptions. It’s multiple plans with multiple variables tweaked. We had roughly 30 minutes to contemplate it. We put two of those options here tonight. There are still elements I feel need to be deliberated on…I feel like that in a deliberative environment, I have had around an hour and 20 minutes to think about this. It’s going to take a little longer than that for me to raise taxes and have a sense of how the pieces fit together.”
Commissioner Todd Hensley said he believed that sending Option 4 to the full commission next month only gave the commission the option to approve a capital projects fund and to fund it at the 23-cent level this year. Grandy, Hensley and Storey all voted to send Option 4 to the full commission with Wise abstaining.
Eldridge then called another budget committee meeting Sept. 3 at the Washington County Courthouse to address any questions commissioners or taxpayers may have ahead of the full commission vote.