Eldridge says spending cuts possible without cutting essential services
By Scott Robertson and Jeff Keeling
Contrary to reports published elsewhere, no one in Washington County government is considering a six-cent tax hike as budget talks move forward.
“We don’t need it,” said County Mayor Dan Eldridge Friday after another local media outlet misquoted him as saying such a hike was possible. “In fact, during the budget committee meeting (Thursday morning), I specifically said there was no interest in a tax increase.”
The confusion likely arose from a report issued by the Office of the Assessor of Property on the recent reassessment of property values in Washington County. That report showed a change in the certified property tax rate from $1.9139 per $100 of assessed value to $1.9798, an increase of just over six cents. The assessor’s office apprised property owners of their reappraised values by mail earlier this year.
The reassessment of property values is nothing new, said Eldridge, and most citizens understand the state requires the county to reassesses property values every five years. Most citizens also, he said, understand that the reassessment is not, in and of itself, a tax increase.
A tax increase would create more revenue for the county, said Eldridge. Adjusting the certified rate based on a decline in assessed values does not.
“There will be changes in the amounts paid on individual parcels of property based on the changes in their value,” said Eldridge. For instance, adding a swimming pool or garage to a home might increase the value of that property, while letting a home fall into disrepair might decrease it. Changing the rate is merely a tool to insure that regardless of the rise and fall of the value of individual properties, the total revenue to the county from all properties combined is neutral. “By state law,” said Eldridge, “there is neither a tax increase nor decrease.”
Discounting new growth, the total Washington County tax base dropped from $2.99 billion last assessment to $2.89 billion this year. Since the overall value of properties in the county went down, the rate went up in order to ensure compliance with state law that total revenue remained neutral.
Had the total assessed value of the properties in the county risen, the rate would have fallen. For instance, Johnson City’s total assessed value rose 25 percent after the 2008 reappraisal. Due to the equalization law, the certified tax rate dropped from $1.93 to $1.54.
The state equalization law is in place to prevent local governments from increasing revenues without voting in a tax increase when a reappraisal comes after a period of growth.
Instead of considering an unnecessary tax increase, said Eldridge, the county needs to look at ways to cut spending in areas where there are opportunities to do so without cutting essential services.
Eldridge outlined several of those at Thursday’s budget committee meeting. “For instance,” he said, “the election commission’s costs have continued to climb dramatically. When you compare our election commission expenditures to some other counties, there is a great deal of concern. We vote in 40 precincts. I believe Sullivan County votes in 27.”
Determining how many precincts exist in a county falls within the purview of the election commission and no other body, Eldridge noted, but he told Maybell Stewart, administrator of elections, that there was interest among county commissioners on working with the commission to combine some precincts as a cost-saving move. Stewart told Eldridge that the election commission is already talking about that possibility.
Eldridge then pointed out other areas where he felt spending cuts might be appropriate. The margin between the fees collected and the money spent by the Register of Deeds office continues to narrow, he said. “Unfortunately we have a department that is staffed and ready for volumes of activity that we experienced from 2004 through 2006, but we are operating at a fraction of those activities. That’s another area where, in the coming months, we need to look seriously at opportunities to right-size this department in relation to the activity in that area.”
Since 2011, said Eldridge, the Planning and Zoning Department had a dramatic increase in funding. “It was well over 100 percent in expenditures in that department. Obviously as you compare us to Sullivan County, to Blount County and other counties that are very similar in size to us, we are spending significantly more for the planning and zoning activities in Washington County than they are. We’re going to have to look strongly at how we bring our expenditures more in line with comparable counties.”
There is good news on several fronts, however. The library, highway and solid waste departments all spent less in the last year than in the year prior. Eldridge commended Solid Waste Department Director Charlie Baines for making a one-time expenditure that should cut costs for years to come. “In 2013, Charlie started an initiative to focus on hauling fewer loads by compacting every load. Last year we approved a little over $200,000 to replace, upgrade and add compactors. We had a decrease in expenditures of about $150,000. So that nearly paid for that capital project in one year.”
“These are the kinds of opportunities that we are looking for across the county,” said Eldridge. “We can invest in technology and equipment that will make our operations more efficient so we can realize operating cost reductions.”
Taking a page from Johnson City’s budget playbook, Eldridge asked Director of Schools Ron Dykes to take the school board a proposal under which the county commission and the school board would each take up to $1 million from their respective general funds in order to pay for one-time expenses. The schools have turned in a budget request that is more than $3 million out of balance.
Dykes agreed to take the proposal back to the school board, which is scheduled to meet this evening, Sept. 3, and bring a response back to the budget committee by Thursday morning.
Washington County currently has more opportunities to prudently use those general fund monies than many Tennessee counties. Four years ago, the county general fund balance was $14 million. Today it stands at $20 million, with more than $16 million of that unassigned. Both the general fund balance and the highway fund balance ($3.35 million) are the highest in the county’s history.