By Collin Brooks
They saved the best for last during the 3rd annual Johnson City Chamber of Commerce State of the City, County and Town Luncheon at the Millennium Centre on Thursday, April 27.
Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe, along with Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning and Don Squibb closed the luncheon by singing a rendition of “Accentuate the Positive,” as a word of advice to their neighboring communities.
Wolfe started out his speech with a similar playful jab.
“My name is Kelly Wolfe and I am from the Town of Jonesborough and I have no on-going funding disputes between me and Johnson City or Washington County,” Wolfe said through his unforgettable laugh.
While Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Johnson City Mayor David Tomita each cracked jokes during their allotted time, both also touched the on-going topic of school funding between the county and city systems. The basis being about the county’s a Capital Projects Fund they started last summer with a 40-cent property tax increase. The fund eases their bonding requirement for building new schools.
“The elephant in the room, it has been in the papers and there has been some discussion of school funding,” Tomita said. “Nobody has asked me about it from the press, thankfully, but I am sure they will at some point. When they do, what I am going to tell them is that I have full confidence in our county commission to make thoughtful decisions to a really difficult subject…The city, county and town need to collaborate. We are joined at the hip. We all have to do well, for any of us to do well. If any of us get hurt, we all get hurt.”
Eldridge gave his speech after Tomita and he came up acknowledging that Johnson City’s mayor was correct.
“David, you’re right, you’re exactly right, we’re all in this together and I want to preface everything I am going to say today by acknowledging that very fact,” Eldridge said. We live and die together. And we, quite frankly, need to start acting like it.”
The Washington County mayor said that the new approach of the Capital Projects Fund will save the county $50 million in construction cost. He also said that the deal will reduce the county’s debt requirement by $140 million.
Eldridge said the county and city need to stop competing with each other and focus on making all of Washington County and the region competitive for new businesses. He said that the world has changed and that schools cannot be built the old way.
“Where we double the cost of the new building, double the borrowing and expect the taxpayers to shoulder the burden,” Eldridge said. “We have limited resources that cannot be consumed in bricks and mortar. Our focus on spending must shift to student achievement. The mantra of both our school systems needs to become minimize the investment in buildings and maximum the investment for preparing our students for college and the work place.”
He said the city system will still get close to $30 million, which is enough for them to cover their current needs with some to be left over, according to Washington County’s mayor.
Eldridge called the approach, “the fairest approach possible, for all taxpayers in Washington County, no matter where they reside.”
The Washington County mayor said that the community needed to push its efforts in the same way creating a plan that should include making a region-wide economic and community development strategy that involves the private sector. He also noted that the plan needs to account for overcoming the workforce challenges that plague the region and improving the outcomes of the school systems.
One of those projects could be a joint effort on a new 160-acre Aerospace Park where Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City, Sullivan County and Washington County are looking to contribute, which Tomita mentioned during his speech.
“It’s important, not only for us here, but the entire Tri-Cities and Northeast Tennessee,” said Tomita about the proposed project at the Tri-Cities Airport. “The types of employers that would settle at a development of that size are going to be large employers that need highly skilled workers that are going to come from the whole region. Not one city has that entire inventory of workers right now.”
That would mark one of the few times that all Northeast Tennessee’s governmental agencies have worked together for something. He said that while it is a tough conversation to begin, because not many people understand why other entities would want to contribute millions of dollars into another county. When you look at it, he said it wasn’t that hard to see why the governmental bodies would want to pitch in.
“(The workers are) going to live here, they’re going to eat here, they’re going to shop here and that is the part that you have to remember,” Tomita said.
Another big project that was mentioned by Eldridge was the opportunity to extend water to unserved parts of the county. The county commission recently pledged $800,000 to extend pipes to certain parts of the county. He said the county would need to start to determine how they were going to fund other water line extensions.
“It’s become very apparent to us that community block grants are not the way to solve this problem in Washington County,” Eldridge said. “Right now, I can say this. It’s going to require a lot of funding, it’s going to require a lot of time and it is going to require a continued partnership with the three municipalities that provide water to Washington County to ever solve the problem that, literally, effects thousands of households in Washington County along 200 miles of county.”
Eldridge also mentioned that the county accomplished something they’ve been trying to do for six years when they refinanced a debt adopted in 2007. That has allowed the county to save $19.5 million in interest. Besides the savings, the refinancing also opened up $1 million a year for debt service.
Tomita mentioned that the city has been able to grow their fund balance over the years, as they held a purse of $2.4 million in 2001, now they hold over $22.4 million.
“Again, you could burn through that really quick, but it gives us a good cushion and we have confidence in the financial strength of your city and the people running that area of it,” said Tomita, who said the city has AA bonding ratings from the important creditors. He also mentioned that 84 percent of respondents for the Johnson City Citizen Survey said that Johnson City was an excellent place or good place to live.
One initiative the city is currently undertaking is a 5-year project that will replace 8,500 street lights inside of the city that will be upgraded to high efficiently lighting. He said that is just one of the many great things going on in Johnson City and something they hope helps the allure of the city.
“Great things are happening here and we will try to keep the momentum rolling and I know our partners will too,” Tomita said.