By Jeff Keeling
If Monday’s low-key Washington County Commission meeting that ended in passage of a fiscal 2016 operations budget was the main course, it probably went down more like dessert compared to any discussions over capital projects funding that may lie ahead.
By an 18-3 vote, with three abstentions and Commissioner Sam Humphrey absent, commissioners passed a budget that leaves the property tax rate at $1.97 per $100 of assessed value and provides 2 percent raises to all county employees, among other things. Commissioners Robbie Tester, Steve Light and Tom Krieger voted no, while Mitch Meredith, Tom Foster and Lee Chase abstained. Left off the agenda was the topic of large new capital projects – one or two K-8 schools (Boones Creek and Jonesborough) and infrastructure funding along the Knob Creek Road corridor foremost among them.
Should the commission address those projects this year, a separate capital budget almost certainly would bring a property tax increase, very likely on the order of 25 cents or more according to County Mayor Dan Eldridge. One penny on the county tax rate brings in revenue of about $277,000, meaning a 25-cent increase would add roughly $6.9 million annually to county revenues.
Prior to the general budget vote, commissioners unanimously approved a $396,810, one-time appropriation to the Washington County school system’s $63.2 million budget.
The schools’ budget was trimmed significantly from initial requests. The one-time funding was for “data curriculum instruction” tools that help teachers develop intervention strategies to help students address “skill deficits,” and for related software.
In addition to the schools’ $63.2 million, other main budget totals included $37,502,072 for the general fund; $10,289,285 for the highway fund; $11,947,030 for the debt service fund; and $1,627,298 for the solid waste/sanitation fund; and $1,424,756 for the capital projects fund.
A public hearing prior to the called budget meeting was scheduled for an hour but lasted only about half that time. Requests for additional funding came from 911 Director Bob McNeil, Washington County Education Association President LaDawn Hudgins, non-profit director Randy Hensley and Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn.
Guinn requested raises for all county employees equal to step raises approved for some sheriff’s department employees, saying the cost would be about $222,000. Hudgins asked for some salary increase for teachers beyond that provided by the state, and McNeil also referenced salaries in asking for $95,400 that had been trimmed from his initial request.
Hensley, of Coalition for Kids, asked for restoration of 10 percent cuts to area non-profits that receive special appropriations. As an example, that would have restored Coalition’s appropriation from $10,935 to a bit over $12,000.
The appropriations issue was the only one that produced any discussion as commissioners deliberated over the budget. Tom Krieger made a motion to amend the budget and restore the cuts, which would have added slightly more than $16,000 to the budget.
Commissioners spent several minutes discussing the relative merits of funding non-profits with local government money – a practice the City of Johnson City was tapering down to zero before ending it completely a year ago. The county had been following the same path, but didn’t cut appropriations last year after the city’s move.
Krieger, Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chair Katie Baker and several others spoke in favor of the practice. Joe Wise questioned whether the county should reverse its approach and, “get back into the charitable donation business.”
Ultimately, Krieger’s motion failed with 11 votes for, 11 against and three abstentions.