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Longtime chairman sees county’s 2015 as the start of something new

Greg Matherly was elected chairman for the fourth consecutive year in September, and he looks forward to exploring new territory with fellow commissioners who are ready to do things differently.
Matherly said he is very pleased with the attitude demonstrated by the new team of commissioners during their first few months in office. “They are very hard working, and they stand up for their ideas and what they believe in,” he said. “There is also a willingness to bend and try new things, and a willingness to make things better.”
During the next six months, he thinks the public will see them take some chances. “We’re going to open up a discussion and talk about a different number of commissioners,” he gave as an example, something the majority of the last board refused to consider.
“They’ve had some tough jobs since the campaign, and they will have more, but they’ve done it professionally, and we’re all looking forward to moving ahead,” Matherly said.
With the responsibility of insurance moved to the newly formed Employee Compensation and Benefits Committee, Matherly is hoping more issues can be addressed by members of the Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee.
“Economic development will be one of the main priorities,” he said. “There is a lot of agri-business in Washington County, and I would like to see how we can assist businesses.”
Creation of tax incremental financing districts is another option that could be considered by CIA members, and Matherly said the commission is on the right path by making changes that will allow this committee to focus on its original objectives.
Use of the county farm is an appropriate project for the CIA Committee to direct, but the path toward a solution is a little less clear. “CIA is taking a hard look at all of the options, and taking into account the (surrounding) residents’ concerns,” he said. “I think the visit to the farm was good, but there is no quick solution.”
Changes in the way zoning violations are addressed, however, are already producing benefits. Matherly said the creation of the Environmental Court is handling cases in a faster, more efficient manner.
“What really made it hard was the enforcement arm was also responsible for the functions of the court clerk and the collection of fines,” he said. “By separating the two, we have a process on the road to working much smoother.”
Matherly said the backlog of 3,300 open files was the result of the zoning office handling all of the work. “If you can never close a case, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “There will now be more emphasis on what they need to be doing, which is working on current cases.”
The Reapportionment Committee has its first meeting scheduled for Jan. 15, with many new board members eager to make good on their campaign promises to reduce the number of county commissioners, but Matherly said the discussions will have a slow start. “I want to make sure we are on steady legal ground.”
Federal and state laws mandate reapportionment and redistricting every 10 years following the publication of the new population summary tables from the U.S. Census. The process uses Census data to redraw the county commission political boundaries to equalize the districts’ population and ensure members of the county legislative body represent equal numbers of residents.
Changes from the 2011 redistricting in Washington County that went into effect with the 2014 election increased the number of districts from nine to 10, and kept the number of commissioners at the maximum-allowed 25.
Matherly has asked interim County Attorney Tom Seeley to research whether action is possible mid-cycle and what would be involved. “I also want to see who else has done it,” he said. “In government, decisions are often based on how it’s gone elsewhere.”
While Matherly said he will agree it’s time to build a new 911 building, many questions will have to be answered first.
“We would have to look closely at what the county could commit,” he said, adding a conversation with the auditors confirmed that 911’s request to borrow funds on the county’s line of credit would impact its available bonding capacity.
Agreement on a location and the involvement from the City of Johnson City are other issues. “The city is a partner,” Matherly said. “Washington County can’t commit to anything greater than the city could commit.”
Details on an arrangement in which the county does the borrowing and another organization services the debt also would have to be nailed down. “We have the 911 Board (as another participant), and everyone needs to get on the same page,” he said. “Once we get all those questions answered, we will be ready to talk about borrowing, but those are the priorities to be addressed.”
A final question is the fate of the current 911 building if the staff moves to another location. “It would become the full responsibility of Washington County, the city’s not involved,” he said. “We need to slow down.”
School safety was a big issue during the last term, with an emphasis on increasing the number of school resource officers.
When a woman entered Gray Elementary School last month carrying a concealed firearm, Matherly said the SRO serving Gray Elementary, Boones Creek Elementary and Boones Creek Middle was not on campus.
That changed Dec. 29 when the full-time SRO for Gray Elementary reported for duty, which was the result of a decision made prior to the incident.
“That was the only part of the county with one SRO serving three schools,” Matherly said. “It was the new SRO who made the arrest.”
Two additional SROs will be coming on during the first few months of 2015 as part of a multi-year effort that will conclude with a full-time officer stationed at all of the elementary and middle schools in the county. Both high schools have full-time SROs.
Matherly said placement of the other new officers will be made in a joint meeting with the sheriff, the director of schools and the SRO supervisor.
The first full-time elementary SRO was stationed in Fall Branch. “We’ve had great results, they love him, and it’s been a win-win,” Matherly said, adding he thinks parents’ being able to see the progress in the program has relieved some of the safety concerns.
Progress on the facilities plan is more complicated. “We have to reach an agreed upon number,” he said. “Borrowing will present limitations on the plan, but we have to be careful not to get overextended, and we have to plan for emergencies.”
While Matherly said he thinks members of the commission and the school board realize the challenges, it’s going to be a long six months trying to reach a consensus.
“We may have to look at our plan and determine what is an absolute necessity right now, and it may take us longer than five years to get the plan done,” he said.
According to Matherly, a new K-8 school was originally included in the project that built Grandview and Ridgeview elementary schools. “We’re definitely seeing the need for that school catching up to us, but we couldn’t afford it.”
Matherly said the third school was cut from the budget before a location was determined. “It would have been tough to build it then, and it will be tough to build it now, but we’re going to have to come up with a plan we can fund, and we’re doing the very best job we can.”
As far as priorities of the chairman, finding legal guidance for the Reapportionment Committee is the top goal. A second is ensuring the commission rules are updated to include all of the changes that have been made in the first few months.
“Then we need to look at meeting automation,” he said. “We’re still having issues with microphones, and considering some kind of on-screen voting.”
Rather than a verbal vote in a roll call format, commissioners were hoping to move to a system that would allow members to cast their votes in unison from their seats, with the votes immediately displayed on screen for the audience.
“There are also things in my district that could pop up tomorrow,” he noted. Matherly recently began his fourth term serving residents of the 1st District.
Another project soon to be under way will involve renovations to the Zoning Office conference room that will allow it to serve as a second county commission meeting room.
“We will be losing the second meeting room, the mayor’s conference room, when we turn that building over for the archive,” Matherly said.
While the primary meeting room will be on the second floor of the courthouse, a second one is needed. Following mostly cosmetic changes, the room will also be available for training sessions and department meetings.