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Commission to answer question of fair treatment

Whether city residents are receiving a fair return on the taxes paid to Washington County has come under question in the news of late, and Mayor Dan Eldridge has asked the county commission’s support in providing the answer.
During the Dec. 15 meeting, Eldridge referred to a recent editorial in the Johnson City Press that implied city residents are not getting their money’s worth because the county taxes being used to fund county fire departments are not also going to fund Johnson City’s fire department.
“The inference of this opinion is city residents pay county taxes to fund city services,” Eldridge said. “If that be the case, the entire funding structure for local government in Tennessee has just been thrown into disarray.”
Eldridge proposed engaging an independent third party to conduct an analysis of the sources and uses of county and city tax revenue to determine if residents have a reason to question whether they are being treated fairly.
“Your concern was very similar to mine as someone who represents a district made up primarily of city residents,” Commissioner Mitch Meredith said. “I don’t want my constituents under the misrepresentation that they are not getting a fair return.”
Commissioner Lynn Hodge agreed it is valuable information the county needs to have.
“It’s a justification of the expenditure,” Commissioner David Tomita noted. “We just wrote a check (to the Johnson City fire department) every year.”
That practice was discontinued in 2012 after commissioners determined no coverage was being received from Johnson City outside of the city limits, which required the county to call in multiple volunteer fire departments. A decision was made to shift the $100,000 appropriation to the county fire departments.Eldridge said he intends to follow up with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at East Tennessee State University, and the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee to determine their interest in taking on the project.
Commissioner Todd Hensley suggested the County Technical Assistance Service as another possibility, but Eldridge said he feared the results would not be viewed as impartial.
While the potential cost of such a study is unknown, Commissioner Joe Wise said the fire department is one small cog in a very complex system that could benefit from an independent party’s opinion. “It’s something we all bring our own bias to,” he said.
Eldridge asked any commissioners who have hesitations about moving forward to contact him. “I need to hear from you this week if you’re concerned about taking this on.”
Also presented during the meeting were some sobering statistics from the county’s fiscal 2014 financial report for board members to consider.
“While the overall financial condition of the county remains very strong, all is not rosy,” Eldridge said, pointing to the modest growth in the county’s economy that now appears to be slowing.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Washington County ranked 91st of the 95 counties in Tennessee in per capita income growth, with only a .2 percent increase during 2013. Building permits for the first three quarters of calendar year 2014 were down approximately 25 percent over the prior period.
In addition, the county’s 2014 property reassessment indicates a 3.5 percent decline in the total assessed value of the tax base during the last five years.
“As you can see from the numbers I just shared, our leading economic indicators do not instill confidence in the quick return of meaningful growth in our local economy,” Eldridge said.
Budget limitations and the local government’s role in encouraging and even stimulating investment for the long-term growth in sales and property tax must be acknowledged, according to Eldridge. “Strategic will be the key word in every consideration simply because we do not have unlimited resources to invest.”
Faced with additional funding priorities in the county, he said the current financial constraints will require the Board of Education to reconsider the scope of its long-range facilities plan. The projected cost of $110 million would have the county looking at a potential debt issuance of $214 million including the share that would go to Johnson City.
Even if the county were to use its maximum $135 million bonding capacity, it would still be $80 million short of funding the plan as presented, in addition to placing all other needs in the county on the back burner for 15-20 years.
Eldridge also referenced criticism in the local media regarding the new Intergovernmental Affairs Committee having yet to set its first meeting date. This committee was established after members of the City/County Liaison Committee agreed the body was not effective and should be ended.
“I don’t believe I’m overstating when I say this commission appears to be focused on solving problems and generating results as opposed to having meetings for the sake of meeting,” he said, referring to success in discussions among city and county leaders during recent committee meetings.
“I believe this approach of engaging Johnson City is in line with your intentions of being more productive,” he said, adding he expects the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee to begin meeting with local legislators prior to the start of the 2015 season.