By Scott Robertson
Dan Eldridge took his beating Monday night the old fashioned way. He earned it.
To recap, Eldridge and County Finance Director Mitch Meredith sat together for weeks in a cone of silence, developing a ten-year capital improvements plan for the county. The plan lowers the county’s debt to zero over a decade, but it raises taxes to do so.
Eldridge and Meredith dummied up a few other options, mainly for show, then pushed their plan hard and fast. No committee other than the budget committee had a chance to consider the plan in session. Very few commissioners felt they were given an adequate opportunity to learn everything the plan entails. They felt rushed, put upon, and disrespected by the process.
The plan included at 23-cent property tax hike this year. Outside of that, commissioners were told the plan they were being asked to approve was only a framework, a living document that could be changed at the will of the commission. Then why, some asked, should they bother approving it?
At the same time, there are some very specific recommendations in the plan, which commissioners felt they were being asked to commit to, despite all the talk of the plan just being a set of guidelines at this point.
Was it just a framework? Yes. But were there specific recommendations? Yes. It sounded like double-talk.
That the commission voted for the plan is testament to what we have been saying in this space since they took office. This is a deliberative group that takes its business seriously.
Because Eldridge and Meredith designed their plan with virtually no input from other commissioners, it would have been only too easy for the commission to punish Eldridge for his “I’ll tell you what I want, when I want,” top-down approach.
But to vote against the plan just to spite the mayor would have been petty. It would have been small. It would have been bad government. Because the plan itself isn’t a bad idea. Details regarding city/county collaboration need work, but more than anything, the plan was just presented badly.
It’s a truism that you don’t kill the messenger. That is, if someone brings bad news, you don’t punish them for doing so. It’s not their fault the news is bad. In this case, the commissioners didn’t kill the message – the idea of putting a plan in place to pay down the debt over the next ten years – just because the messenger did a bad job of bringing it.
Because of that willingness to move the county forward instead of just playing politics, the county commission will now have a chance to take Eldridge and Meredith’s framework and begin the process of vetting the plan the way they ought to have been able to weeks ago.
They will be able to deliberate in their appropriate committees whether to follow the plan’s recommendations or to do something else entirely.
And the things that were to be paid for this year with the funds from the tax increase? They’re either being tabled or sent back to committee to see whether they can be done this year at all, and if so, how. In essence, the commission now has control of the process and is working through the existing system of government the way it was designed.
Politically, Eldridge gets off lighter than he should. Oh, he took a verbal beating from the usual gang of folks who reflexively oppose him. And several commissioners who were willing to take him at his word in the past have moved to a “trust but verify” mindset where they mayor is concerned.
Yet in the end, taxes will still need to be raised for the county to wean itself from debt, which it has now committed to doing. The mayor took it on the chin for one night. But now he and some version of the capital improvements plan will roll on to next year, and the year after.
We can’t help but wonder what would have happened Monday night if Eldridge and Meredith had been far more inclusive in crafting the plan.
Would the proposed tax increase this year have been smaller? Would there have been a tax increase this year associated with the plan at all? Would negotiations over the points of conflict between Johnson City and the county have begun in earnest months ago?
We’ll never know.
But that’s crying over spilled milk.
Much more importantly, our county government will now begin looking at its finances more than one year in advance. Our children now have the opportunity to live in a county where the government is debt-free.
Whether Eldridge “lost” a political battle is largely immaterial. What matters is, the citizens of Washington County, at least for this round, won.