By Scott Robertson
Washington County Commissioners voted 16-7 Monday night to raise the county property tax rate 40 cents, from roughly $1.98 per $100 of taxable property to $2.3798. The new levy takes effect July 1.
Commissioners heard from 27 concerned citizens during a public comment session that started the meeting. Several, including teachers and principals from the Washington County School System, spoke in support of the construction of a K-8 school to replace the antiquated Boones Creek Elementary and Middle schools. About a third of the citizens spoke in opposition to raising the tax rate.
Once the citizens had spoken, and after several other agenda items were seen to, the commissioners began debating the tax levy. Commissioner Danny Edens was the first to speak. “Do we need that school? Most definitely,” Edens said. “It’s not that I am not prepared to vote for a new school. I am not prepared to vote for this tax increase. I feel like building the school is the right thing. I feel like the way we’re handling it is the wrong way.” Edens suggested putting the tax increase to a county-wide referendum. Failing that, he said, he would entertain raising the tax rate only enough to fund the new Boones Creek school without raising taxes for any other purpose.
Commissioner Robbie Tester then moved an amendment to the levy which would have taken 11 cents off the increase by cutting $1.2 million in funding Tester said was earmarked as economic incentive for Mullican Flooring’s proposed $8 million expansion and $1.8 million Tester said was designated for improvements to the county industrial park. Commissioner Paul Stanton seconded Tester’s amendment, saying he was concerned that money for Mullican had not been approved by the Budget Committee.
County Mayor Dan Eldridge then explained that the $1.2 million specified in the tax levy was not specifically earmarked at that time for the Mullican project, and that those funds could be appropriated for another purpose by the commission at a later date. The idea of putting the funding in the tax levy before the specifics of the deal could be heard by the budget committee, Eldridge said, was to prevent the county from potentially agreeing to do something in the near future without having the funds to do so. “That has been a big problem for this county in the past,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge gave a similar answer when asked why the commission was being asked to raise taxes to fund $1.8 million in industrial park improvements when $1.4 million had already been designated for that purpose in the FY 2015-2016 budget. The commission could redesignate those funds at a later date, Eldridge said. In the meantime, the county would have a recurring revenue stream.
Tester’s amendment was voted down 19-3.
The commission then turned its attention back to the original motion from the budget committee, voting in favor of the 40-cent increase.
Voting against the rate hike were Commissioners Danny Edens, Mike Ford, Sam Humphreys, Steve Light, Robbie McGuire, Skip Oldham and Robbie Tester. Commissioners Forrest Boreing and Joe Wise were absent from the meeting.
The commission also approved the appointments of Commissioners Greg Matherly and David Tomita to the EMS Board of Directors, Commissioners Rick Storey and Lee Chase to the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) Board and Lynn Hodge and Mark Larkey to the JCDA’s Tax Increment Fund Advisory Board.
County Mayor Dan Eldridge reported that the refinancing of $130 million in debt related to the construction of the George Jaynes Justice Center and two elementary schools will yield significant savings for the county. The old interest rate was 4.44 percent, Eldridge said. On the non-taxable portion of the bond refi, the new rate, established Monday, will be 2.44 percent, while on the taxable portion, it will be 1.44. The US bond market has been buoyed by uncertainty in the world financial markets following the Brexit vote in Britain. “That came at just the right time for us,” Eldridge said.
The county anticipates having an estimate of how much it will save within the week, Eldridge said. “It’s a lot,” he added. “This has been a real, real good day for Washington County.”