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County voters consider candidates: Mayor’s forum targets strength of the county

Two very different perspectives on the current state of Washington County were shared by mayoral candidates at the Community Editorial Board meeting sponsored by the Johnson City Press on April 1.
During the event held at the International Storytelling Center, Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford and incumbent Mayor Dan Eldridge took turns responding to six questions from the Editorial Board and one question submitted by a member of the audience.
Topics included a rating on the county’s fiscal soundness; its obligation to work with Jonesborough and Johnson City; whether the county is fulfilling its responsibility for funding the schools; the relationship with the county commission; personal philosophies on annexation; whether growth in Washington County could be negatively impacted by annexation; and personal opinion on the Common Core State Standards.
In his opening statement, Eldridge said he has gained an appreciation for Washington County since taking office in 2010 that he didn’t think was possible. “Building on that success is the way I want to approach the next four years,” he said.
Rutherford concurred Washington County is a great place to live and work, but said he has heard the citizens’ call and agrees it’s time for a change. “There is a failure to communicate, and I know how to fix it,” he said. “The government has no vision and no leadership, and I offer myself.”
On a scale of A to F, Eldridge gave the county’s fiscal soundness an A. “Revenues have exceeded expenses during the last three years, and we have the highest fund balance in history,” he said. “We have a stable budget, we’re expanding services and we have increased support to the schools.”
The county’s fiscal status received a much lower C grade from Rutherford. “We may have the highest fund balance, but we also have the highest debt,” he said. “I also disagree on expanding services. There’s more work to do.”
Rutherford said there is also more work to be done in establishing cooperative working relationships with Jonesborough and Johnson City. “I absolutely support a united effort, but we are fragmented and we don’t communicate,” he said.
According to Eldridge, the county should continue working with Johnson City as a partner, not a competitor. “To think we would be in a position that we would advocate for something that is good for one and not the other is not working to make that happen,” he said.
While Rutherford said he believes the county is trying to make up for not fulfilling the responsibilities for funding the school system, it is still trailing.
Eldridge warned the significant difference in sales tax distribution between the city and county could shift a disproportionate share of the needed funding for county schools to the taxpayer. “This is a very complex issue, but we clearly understand what the problem is, and I think we can resolve it in the next three to four years,” he said.
In regard to the relationship with the commission, Rutherford said he has been in office for 25 years and works closer with the commission than any other office. “They are starved for information, and I would have to give myself and my staff a very high rating,” he said. “If people are asking questions, someone is not doing their job.”
Eldridge said his term as mayor has been very different from his predecessor’s, with one of the biggest changes being his stepping down as chairman of the commission after the first year. “I found there was little differentiation in the role between the executive and legislative branches of the government,” he said. “I hoped it would improve the overall atmosphere. The commission is very busy, and they are starting to realize I am, too. As mayor, one of the first things I did was create a director of communications position, but we had a setback when the commission defunded it after one year.”
As far as a personal annexation philosophy, Eldridge said there is a place for it, but it needs to be the result of careful planning. “The Urban Growth Boundary was created too large, which has caused concern,” he said. “The people affected need to have a vote, no question, but it’s multi-faceted. The percentage of sales tax (to the county) has been cut in half since the 1980s, which affects funding for the schools.”
Rutherford said having a philosophy that is different from the city code is not his style. “I rewrote the (Public Chapter) 1101 manual to reopen the commission, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “The Urban Growth Boundary was completely legal.”
In many ways, Rutherford said, the threat of annexation has become a political football. “The Gray residents don’t care if a new Kmart comes in, just don’t take their farms,” he said. “Until something happens in Nashville, we’re stuck with this.”
Annexation definitely changes the landscape, Eldridge noted, but it could end up being a net positive if it causes the county’s governmental entities to work together. “It will require us to move our relationship to a whole new level relative to planning,” he said.
An opinion on the Common Core State Standards was the question asked by an audience member.
“My first opinion is that it is extremely misunderstood and may have been misrepresented,” Eldridge said. “We need to take a step back and still commit to doing what needs to be done.
“Based on what I’ve read, it is a standard, not a curriculum, but I wish it focused more on results,” he added. “I’m big on outcomes, and we need to ask how the Common Core will affect the outcomes.”
Rutherford said he didn’t have enough information to discuss the program.
In closing, Rutherford said his first goal when elected will be to restore credibility to Washington County government. “I’ll bring honesty, competency, efficiency, effectiveness and vision,” he said. “I will never embarrass you, and I will work with everyone to ensure issues are resolved.”
Eldridge said he knows county residents are expecting results and stewardship of taxpayer dollars. “I understand the opportunities and how to accomplish them, and I look forward to where we will be in four years,” he said.
“I leave you with a thought – if we are expecting success as a result of what is done in Washington, D.C., or Nashville, we’re never going to see it,” he said. “Success will be the results of our decisions and our investment, and we’re up to it.”