Movement on issues expected quickly
By Scott Robertson
Dan Eldridge is smiling.
The mayor of Washington County, Tenn., has spent the better part of the last four years dealing with a county commission that often obstructed his plans and ideas. Those days, Eldridge believes, are about to end. Movement on issues including commissioner benefits and commission size is expected quickly.
From its make-up to the stated ideologies of its members, the incoming Washington County Commission could scarcely be more unlike its predecessor. In fact, to call it the new commission may be understating its effect; this will be a very new commission. Fifteen of 25 commissioners will be serving their inaugural terms in office.
Departing are Commissioners Alpha Bridger, Doyle Cloyd, Mark Ferguson, Roger Nave and Gearld Sparks (voted out in the May primary); Ben Bowman, Phyllis Corso, Richard Matherly, Sam Phillips and Joe Sheffield (voted out in the August general election); Ethan Flynn, Ken Lyon and Pat Wolfe (chose not to run for re-election in 2014); and David Shanks, who stood for re-election, but dropped out of the race in mid-campaign.
Also leaving the commission will be Pete Speropulos. Speropulos resigned after his name was put on the ballot (he moved out of the district he was elected to represent), yet won re-election anyway. Since he was elected to an office he cannot legally hold, Speropulos will have to resign again.*
If the new commissioners’ campaign promises are to be believed, the two matters mentioned above will come to the commission’s agenda very quickly. Voters repeatedly ousted commissioners who voted in favor of keeping full-time status insurance benefits in place for themselves. Candidates who said they would eliminate benefits for commissioners won overwhelmingly.
The second matter is the size of the commission itself. Washington County, Tenn., has 25 commissioners. By comparison, Los Angeles County, California has five. The redistricting process that is the logical first step in cutting the size of the Washington County Commission is expected to begin within the first 90 days of the new commission, says Eldridge. While the commission size will remain at 25 for the next four years, it is entirely within the new commission’s purview to eliminate seats heading into the 2018 elections.
Eldridge is clearly looking forward to seeing the new commission dismantle an organizational structure he believes was designed to keep an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a select few commissioners. “I think you will see this commission be much more inclusive,” Eldridge says. “These commissioners, I believe, recognize that this body is currently made up of 25 representatives of the people of Washington County. All 25 will be encouraged and given opportunities to actively participate in this process.
“In addition to that,” Eldridge adds, “I think the commission is also going to be very focused on making their process more transparent, more deliberate and more efficient. I think a lot of these committees that ended up being a burial ground for business matters last term will be gone soon. You’re going to see matters that are brought before the commission receiving the attention they need to receive and a decision will be made up or down rather than things being shuffled off to a committee and forgotten about.”
In expressing relief that the commission will be cutting bureaucracy to get out of its own way, Eldridge says, he’s relieved to expect the commission will get out of the rest of county government’s way as well. “One other thing I expect you’re going to see from this commission as opposed to the last one,” Eldridge says, “I feel this commission will recognize and have respect for the line between the legislative branch and the executive branch. We really were challenged by that last term. And I’m not just referring to the mayor’s office. I’m talking about all nine elected officials and one appointed official that make up the executive branch of Washington County government. These executive branch public servants are tasked by statute to operate county government. The legislature is not tasked to operate.
“I expect that this commission will have respect for the roles of elected officials on the executive side and I expect that the elected officials will have respect for the role of the commission,” Eldridge says.
Currently there are two departments that do report to the commission instead of reporting to Eldridge. While he won’t speculate on whether the new commission will throw control of the zoning and legal departments back to his office, Eldridge says he’s confident the commission will at least take up the question in a timely fashion.
“The commission is not set up to have any departments reporting to them,” Eldridge says. “Not only is it not good practice, but the general law does not allow for operations to report to the county commission or be under its direct supervision. To even allow that to happen, you have to have the state legislature pass a private law that applies only to your county. That’s what the commission did in the past in respect to both the zoning department and the legal department. The zoning department decision was made in the 1980s. The legal department happened a couple of years ago.”
In the long-term, the county faces very real challenges from rising costs to provide county services while revenues project to be flat. There are only four ways to deal with that problem: cut costs, raise taxes, borrow, and build the tax base. The county has minimized its cost of debt over the last few years, refinancing several bond issues, but there’s little progress left to be achieved there. Raising taxes is not something Eldridge supports, and he believes the new commission will be averse to the idea as well, at least until every penny of cost savings can be wringed out of the budget.
The county’s best chance to thrive, says Eldridge, is to build the tax base by bringing in new jobs and new capital investment. “We need to be making prudent investments in bringing those new employers to the county and we need to make sure we keep the existing jobs we already have.”
In the meantime, Eldridge says, “There will be a real initiative on the part of the commission to wring out any remaining efficiencies from a spending perspective as we look at the budgets. We’ve done a lot in that regard over the last four years. Quite frankly, that was the low-hanging fruit. I think you will see a lot of effort put in over the next four years to identifying other efficiencies and investing in those. You will see a focus on not eliminating services, but enhancing them without increasing costs. A lot of the focus there will be in technology. This county overall is behind the technology curve, and we all know that. I think the commission will want to invest in technology to put the county back at the front of the curve in being able to offer the services the people of Washington County expect, but to do so as cost-effectively as we possibly can. That will pay dividends for years to come.”
The final commission meeting with the current slate of commissioners is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. at the George Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough. The new commission is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday, Aug. 28 at 9 a.m. in the same building.
*Speropulos was out of town during the week leading up to the publication of this issue. He told News & Neighbor he would officially resign, “as soon as I can get down there, but I’ve been swamped.” How soon that resignation becomes official will determine whether voters get a chance to choose Speropulos’s replacement. If Speropulos resigns after the qualifying date for candidates to make the field for the November general election, the county commission will appoint his successor.