By COLLIN BROOKS
A packed courtroom #7 in the George P. Jaynes Justice Center was overwhelming clad in red to show support for a new Boones Creek school. That project was one that is included in the proposed 32-cent capital project tax increase. The other $0.08 cents — for a combined $0.40 — would go into operational funds, three pennies for the schools and five for general government.
It took 3.5 hours between public comment and other business, but at 9:30 p.m. the tax levy passed and Washington County citizens will see their property tax increase from 1.98 to 2.38. However, the tax increase doesn’t necessarily guarantee new schools. The $0.32 will be put in a capital projects fund and each project will still have to be approved by the full commission.
Sixteen commissioners voted for the tax increase, while seven voted it down. One of those seven was Washington County Commissioner Robbie Tester, who was one of the most outspoken, along with commissioner Danny Edens. He was still a little surprised that the tax levy passed so easily after a tax increase of $0.23 was heavily voted down last year.
The money is there, but what about the school’s site?
“I can’t explain it,” said Tester after the meeting. “Yeah, we have provided a lot of funding for projects and future projects, but those projects still have to be prioritized and we still have to be good stewards of how we spend it all. The idea of planning ahead for expenditures, I really like that, but my biggest problem is, as I said tonight — at least this commission and administration — I don’t feel like we have shown and proven our responsibility with prioritizing the monies.”
Tester made a motion that $0.11 cents be removed from the tax levy, which he said went toward the industrial park and a Mullican Flooring deal — a deal which has yet to make it out of committee. However, that motion was voted down before the tax levy vote took place.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge took an unusual amount of time to try to help the commission understand exactly what he believed they were voting on, after questions that Tester brought up seemed to gain some traction. After much discussion, vote was called.
Eldridge was pleased with the outcome of the tax levy, saying the process was a little different then the failed vote last year.
“I think that just the fact that the county commission really spent the last year really understanding exactly what the needs of the county are, they have done their hard work,” he said “They have done their due diligence and they realize that if this county is going to continue to move forward, if we are going to continue to meet the needs to improve these facilities and replace the facilities as they need to be, then these investments need to be made.”
Multiple teachers, parents, principals and other members of the community got up to voice their concern about the current state of the school during the public forum discussion. Whether it be the hazards they worry about on a day-to-day basis or personal encounters they have had with the schools.
One Boones Creek parent, Kim Martin, said she told her son that she didn’t mind if he was a big fish in a small pond or small fish in a big pond, but there was one option he could not be.
“I cannot have you be a fish in a dying pond,” she said she told her son one day. “And Boones Creek Middle School is a dying pond.”
Martin said that she told her son, Elijah, that he could pick any school in the area and she would pay for him to go there. “If the adults don’t care about you enough to build you a new school, then I will pay for you to go to another school, any school,” Martin told the commission.
But her son objected, saying that he didn’t want to attend a school that didn’t have his friends or teachers. While Martin had no problem with the education that her son receives at the schools, she was concerned with his well being due to the condition of the building that was built in 1939.
Another citizen said that the tax on his little farm has doubled over the past 10 years and he mentioned that he never liked tax increases, but sometimes they are a necessity.
“There comes a time when you have to have (tax increases) and this is one of those times,” David Gwynn said. “I think it is time to make a decision and I know it’s an election year, but we didn’t elect politicians, we elected leaders.”
Former Johnson City Mayor and current Johnson City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin and Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe were both on hand in support of building a new school and each took their allotted three minutes to speak amongst almost 30 other members of the community during the public discussion.
Wolfe mentioned that he would like to see two schools built — a nudge toward a Jonesborough project — but that he supported any school project for the betterment of Washington County as a whole.
“I am against tax increases too; tax increases are not something that I look forward to or support on a regular basis. But sometimes you have to make an investment,” Wolfe said. “And instead of focusing on this as a tax increase, I would encourage you to look at this as an investment in not only our kids, but in our county and our future.”
Van Brocklin echoed similar sentiments before Wolfe spoke.
“I am here in no official capacity, I am here simply as a resident of Washington County,” Van Brocklin said as he opened his time. “I have to admit that I am not sure that I am here this evening supporting a tax increase, as much as I am asking that you tend to very real needs of our students.”
Gray resident John Daniel said that he had a petition that had over 1,500 signatures that were in opposition of the tax increase, however, he was one of only eight people that showed up to oppose the tax increase in person.
“My problem with the tax increase is that it hasn’t been done in a succinct way,” Daniel said.
Perhaps the most animated person to speak was James Reeves, who also showed up during the 10 a.m. budget committee meeting and voiced his displeasure. Reeves called the new tax increase the “mayoral slush fund” during the morning session and said that the county was confiscating $11.3 million from it’s citizens.
His comments turned even more lively after he was informed that his three minutes were up. While roaring his displeasure, Reeves was encouraged to step away from the podium as two sheriff deputies approached him and escorted him out of the courtroom.
His actions were not enough to change the intention of the commission.