Going head to head: Candidates get ready to square off in upcoming Mayor’s race - Dan Eldridge
By Karen Sells
According to Eldridge, the state and federal government cannot be counted on to provide the resources Washington County needs to be successful, which requires a joint effort on the local level. “I hear the frustration, and I want people to know this is where I spend my time.”
Considerable cost savings have been achieved during his first term, he says, through selling the Downtown Centre, securing a general liability insurance policy for the county, and restructuring a portion of the county’s debt.
“We even renegotiated the contract with Waste Management,” Eldridge said. “It took a few months, but it will represent $2 million in savings.”
Implementing fiscal management policies and growing the fund balance have put Washington County head and shoulders above other counties in terms of financial stability and capability, according to Eldridge.
In addition, plans to take New Build Washington County to the next level are also in the works, with a grant recently received for 10 additional houses. “Appalachian Service Project has become a strategic partner in dealing with housing (needs) beyond disaster recovery,” Eldridge said. “It’s not an easy or a quick fix, but we’re making meaningful progress in offering a hand up to residents.”
The county also maintains a good working relationship with the City of Johnson City. “We started in June of last year and have identified problems related to annexation and have put together some very bold solutions,” he said, noting both entities are in a holding pattern until the legislature takes action. “I think we have a good plan, but whether we will be able to implement it is up to the General Assembly.”
A mutual understanding of the need to stay focused on the big picture has made for a different working environment among city and county leaders, he said. “I have tried my best to represent all 125,000 citizens in Washington County, recognizing one won’t be successful without the other.”
After his first year in office, Eldridge ended the Washington County tradition of the mayor’s serving as the commission chair by not seeking reappointment, saying his time would be better spent recruiting new jobs and managing the budget.
“I feel people elect the mayor to serve a certain role, and stepping down allowed me to focus on what my job really is,” he said.
While he is in contact with the commission chair on almost a daily basis, Eldridge said it is not practical for him to maintain that level with 24 other commissioners.
“If I could change anything, I would encourage commissioners to communicate with me when they have specific concerns or when they are unsure of where I am (on an issue),” he said.
Eldridge says he has an open door policy that works, but there is a small minority of commissioners who are not willing to take advantage of it. “Personal opinions need to be set aside for what’s best for county government and the citizens,” he said. “That has to be what motivates us and (serves as) the basis of our decisions.”
Financial management of the county remains the biggest challenge though Eldridge says the contributing factors have changed.
“During the last four years we have focused on recovering from an economic downturn and living within our means, which we have accomplished without a tax increase,” he said.
But new challenges are ahead. “We cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend the Affordable Care Act will not affect Washington County,” Eldridge said. “We will have to identify ways to limit exposure to the rising cost.”
Without a change in benefits, the county still could see costs double. “We have to respond quickly, but it’s a remarkably complicated issue,” he said, noting he has spoken with consultants who have found solutions in other areas.
Unfortunately, the funding growth in property tax receipts that the county has always counted on may not be there moving forward, according to Eldridge. Another factor is the leveling of sales tax increases. “How can we provide the same services in an environment where the revenue isn’t growing?” he asked.
The stagnant revenue must be considered in discussions related to the schools long-range facilities plan, estimated at $214 million including the portion mandated for the city schools. “There is just no way to put that burden on Washington County taxpayers,” Eldridge said. “This will require the city and county to work together on a solution that will stop the doubling, and we can do it.”
The $10 million debt offering approved last year provided funds to the schools for security upgrades and facilities improvements, in addition to a long list of capital improvements throughout the county.
Lack of progress in one of the projects, renovations in the downtown courthouse, is the result of a misunderstanding regarding the commissioners’ role. “The commission is the funding body, but the implementation is the job of elected officials,” Eldridge said.
While commissioners can ask questions, it is not their role to be involved in overseeing the capital projects, he said. “It was never intended to be and it never has been,” Eldridge noted. “They have to acknowledge that.”
Information on candidate Mike Rutherford can be found in our "Local News" tab.