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County weighs in on upcoming challenges

Mayor Dan Eldridge is excited about the challenges that lie before the county and the commission during 2015. “They set the stage for years to come in terms of growth, quality of life and success in Washington County.”
His number one goal for the new year is developing a strategy to stimulate growth in the local economy, with strengthening the workforce as a close second.
“It must be a multi-faceted strategy, and the foundational elements are education and workforce development,” he said. “The tax base is not growing, the workforce is not growing, and I’m very concerned about the economic trends in wages and tax receipts.”
As a result, planning has risen to the top of the priority list, he said. “It goes hand-in-hand with how we plan for growth, stimulate growth and plan for the resources to service growth.”
However, changes in annexation laws have created new challenges. “Growth is very much in disarray,” he said. “Washington County has always relied on Johnson City and Jonesborough to extend water and sewer (services).”
Providing these and additional services such as fire protection is critical to support growth, he said. “My preference would be to partner with Johnson City and Jonesborough because Washington County does not need to invest in a utility district.”
But a change will be required in how the county operates, according to Eldridge. “We have always responded to Johnson City, but this year Washington County will have to lead,” he said. “These are truly unchartered waters.”
While the state will do its part, Eldridge said leaders in Nashville pect the local community to step up. “This is new ground for Washington County,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, we stepped up and developed the industrial park in Telford, but nothing since.
“The encouraging thing is we have a way forward, and in five, 10, 20 years, Washington County is going to be a better place.”
Eldridge believes members of the newly elected county commission understand and make the connection to the importance of economic development and the need to invest in a strategy to stimulate growth.
As an example, he pointed to the commissioners’ deliberateness on informing themselves about the issues the county is facing. “I think that’s what the people elected them to do,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with how quickly they organized and began addressing several heavy issues put on them by the constituents.”
Progress made during the first few months includes work by the Zoning Administrator’s Oversight Committee in restructuring the Zoning Office to be more effective, cost efficient and better able to prepare for challenges in the foreseeable future.
The first step after getting the department organized is reviewing the subdivision regulations. “We need to make sure we are creating regulations for an environment that is conducive to growth, but at the same time providing protection of the environment we want this to be,” he said.
Selection of an insurance provider is another immediate issues requiring action. Eldridge said Washington County has had its head stuck in the sand as far as requirements of the Affordable Care Act. “We’re behind, and each of the new elements kicking in during the next three years offers challenges,” he said.
The county is not ready for the reporting compliance requirements, which Eldridge said must be data driven and automated. As a next step, he has asked Benefits Coordinator Michelle Stewart to complete a comprehensive review of the services offered by the current broker and the three who recently made presentations to the Employee Compensation and Benefits Committee.
In a long-awaited move, the mayor’s offices successfully relocated from the county office building to the downtown courthouse last month which provides available space for all staff to be located on the second floor, something Eldridge said will further improve the efficiency of the departments.
While Eldridge had hoped to fill the newly created director of finance and administration position by Dec. 31, he still has one more candidate to interview. With final details on second floor courthouse renovations to house the mayor’s offices almost complete, he expects to have a full staff in place soon after the first of the year.
A new county attorney will be another member of the team. Eldridge said he will present the modified job description, based on the county commission’s decision to go with a full-time staff attorney, to the Legal Services Oversight Committee during January.
The ongoing discussion on funding for the schools facilities plan will be picked up again at the Jan. 14 meeting of the Budget Committee, according to Eldridge.
Whether the long-range facilities plan allows for facilities necessary to fulfill the career- and college-ready objectives the community needs to meet is a question that must be addressed, he said. “The more I have invested myself in the funding, the more I ask myself, what is the objective?”
Recent meetings in Nashville reinforced the question of whether Washington County is equipping graduates with the skills to be employable, especially given the higher skill level necessary for higher-paying employers.
“When you’re talking about investing the amount of money the school board is asking for, we need assurance that we are going to see results from the school system,” he said. “Employers are telling me they are not ready.”
Eldridge said one option is exploring the idea of developing a career academy in conjunction with local higher education institutions to prepare students with specific career skills in a college-like environment. “Before making the investment, we’d like to know we’re meeting a strategic need.”
A decision also needs to be made on the expired lease agreement with the Washington College Ruritans that allows the county to operate a convenience center on their Limestone property.
“Clearly, the commission has a problem with the structure,” Eldridge said, referring to comments that the revenue from recyclables should be coming back to the county rather than the Ruritan Club. “My preference would be to work out an arrangement with the Ruritans and continue to use that facility.”
In the event the lease is not renewed, Eldridge said the county will have to identify a piece of property and make the investment. “We can’t abandon that community.”
Development of Knob Creek Road is something else he would like to see completed. “This project has been on the books for years in an area of Washington County that is ripe for development, and we need to push this through.”
According to Eldridge, recent discussion of a new 911 building is premature. “We’re not at the point of even starting to consider the request.”
He said the county must consider all options, such as co-locating emergency management with emergency communications as many areas have done.