Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
They talked about the elephant in the room – five years of stagnant growth in the tax base with no end in sight – during Monday evening’s Washington County Commission budget workshop.
“Everyone’s concern at this point is, ‘what is out there to stimulate growth?’” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said after commissioners, more than half of them newly elected, had discussed the budget for more than an hour.
“Quite honestly, I’m not aware of anything that’s going to bring us back to a growth rate anywhere close to the rate of inflation,” Eldridge added.
The commission will consider a $36.8 million general fund budget, expenditures-wise, with a projected deficit of $1.8 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. The general fund had a balance of $19.8 million as of June 30. Commissioners agreed by consent to bump up employee raises from the budget committee’s recommended 1.5 percent to 2 percent.
Commissioners, more than half of them newly elected, explored budget details with Eldridge for nearly two hours. They also briefly discussed the proposed $63.2 million Washington County Schools budget.
The commission will meet Sept. 29 to vote on the FY 2015 budget, following a budget committee public hearing. Members will consider budgets for the schools, general fund, debt service, highway fund and solid waste fund, totaling roughly $123 million.
Commissioners repeatedly expressed a desire for positions and expenditures to be accompanied by objective metrics to evaluate their effectiveness. These ranged from new school employees proposed to help address the unfunded “response to intervention” mandate to a proposed new veterans services officer.
Eldridge fielded numerous questions, particularly surrounding his request for a new executive position, director of finance and administration. Several commissioners wondered whether Eldridge has found savings in the budget to offset the position, which will carry a salary around $80,000.
“To go through the process of identifying $80,000 worth of savings, I haven’t done it,” Eldridge said. He added, however, that in addition to helping guide the county through software changes and other new requirements, the right person in the slot will be a major asset in helping guide the county through “a no-growth mode.”
“We have to be focused every day on how we take costs out of the system, and that will be a key opportunity for this position – to help us understand opportunities to take costs out of our operations.”
Two new commissioners, Tom Krieger and Todd Hensley, were among several who voiced their support for the new role, which as a new position will not replace current budget director Bobbye Webb’s job.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a $120 million operation out there that doesn’t have someone in this type of role,” said Hensley, who is on the budget committee. He also said the job will be an important one in providing continuity and stability when there is a change in elected leadership.
In addition to a smattering of smallish changes, the proposed budget shifts 2 cents to the debt service fund. This fiscal year, the county enters a nine-year period with annual bonded debt service in the $12 million range, more than $2 million above recent annual payouts. It also includes around half a million dollars in new spending, though some of that is offset by accompanying cuts. Those changes include some to the “Preservation of Records” budget area, and Eldridge reported that work to renovate the current county office building on Main Street in Jonesborough into an archives with public viewing rooms should commence within a few months.
Eldridge ended the meeting back on the ongoing revenue woes the county shares with local governments statewide and nationally. He pointed to a chart, distributed to commissioners, that clearly showed how little growth the county has experienced in either property or sales tax revenues over the past half-decade. That contrasts with a previous era in which steady annual growth helped fund a growing budget.
Even with Washington County’s high level of visible commercial development the past couple of years, Eldridge said, “you can see what our growth rate is. It takes a tremendous amount of investment to move the needle on this tax base.”
With a total tax base of around $11 billion, Eldridge said, a 10 percent growth year – and there were some during the boom times – would require more than $1 billion in investment.
“Can you think of anything going on out there right now that would even come close?” he asked. “In fiscal 2014 we had growth of about $40 million. Barely moved the needle.”
Eldridge said the story was the same in the sales tax arena. “We’re struggling to pace inflation with that,” he said.
County commissioners also conducted a brief official meeting Monday, okaying an altered slate of committees from the one the previous commission utilized.
On a recommendation from the Committee on Committees, which met last Wednesday, the commission approved the following standing committees: audit and ethics; commercial, industrial and agricultural; zoning administrator oversight; legal services oversight; rules; health, education and welfare; public works; public safety; employee compensation and benefits; and intergovernmental affairs.
Several committees have merged and changed, a few have been eliminated or chaged in scope, and one is completely new: employee compensation and benefits.
“Our county commission was elected to do more with less this time,” Larkey said. “I think that was a thing we all heard loud and clear. Our approach to evaluating and appointing these committees should be to simplify and streamline the committee process.”
Commissioners were to choose four committees each on which they would be willing to serve, ranking them, by Tuesday. The Committee on Committees was slated to review those choices today and recommend appointments for full commission consideration Monday.