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New leaders ready for commission changes

Goals and objectives for the new term of elected leaders indicate a different perspective for the Washington County Commission.
“We should operate as an executive board rather than micromanaging the daily operations,” Commissioner Todd Hensley said during the first official meeting on Sept. 2. “We need to develop this as a mission and put it out there for the public.”
Commissioner Joe Wise agreed. “We need to look at the board of commissioners as a governing body,” he said. “We’re here to set governance on a broad term.”
Looking at the offices that run the day-to-day business of the county and setting them up in a hierarchy under the mayor was suggested by Commissioner Matthew Morris.
Commissioner Gary McAllister recommended forming a committee to address the size of the commission and member benefits.
Also in regard to the board’s structure, Commissioner Sam Humphreys wants the commission to end the nepotism and bring in term limits. “When I was first elected, we had 43 commissioners and no pay,” he said.
A real restructuring of the committees in terms of number and purpose is needed, according to Commissioner Lee Chase, who also would like to see a comprehensive package of employee health benefits.
Commissioner Joe Grandy said he wants to provide an opportunity for citizen comments during the board meetings, an idea that had been proposed before but never implemented.
A review of the commission’s Rules of Procedure is another need, according to Commissioner Forrest Boreing. “The training we went to indicates some of the things in the rules are not in line with state law,” he said.
Mayor Dan Eldridge also shared his goals during the Sept. 2 meeting. “I’d like to talk with you about several issues that came into focus in the last term and that have the potential to dramatically impact Washington County for years to come,” he said. “In my opinion, each of these matters, and although diverse in nature, is equally important.”
The first is improving the outcomes of the Washington County School system. While funding is key, Eldridge said no amount of financial support from the commission will close the disparity gap by even $1. “The low-hanging fruit is better managing costs rather than counting on increased funding,” he said.
Another major issue to address is the anemic growth in the property and sales tax bases in Washington County. Eldridge said the county needs to work on targeted investments that will stimulate private investment. One idea is to designate Boones Creek Road as the highway to the future due to its potential for economic and community development. “This is an opportunity to invest and move the needle, and do it quickly,” he said.
The availability of safe drinking water is also a need, according to Eldridge. “While we recognize Washington County is not in the water business, I hope we also realize thousands of county residents have nowhere else to turn.” Eldridge suggested seeking partners to oversee an expansion of water distribution to the unserved areas of the county, but reminded commissioners their willingness to commit the funding for the necessary infrastructure would be required.
Providing fire protection to the unincorporated areas of Washington County during the daytime areas continues to be a challenge for the six volunteer fire departments, and Eldridge proposed creating a Washington County Fire and Rescue Department to meet the need and improve response time. “The recurring cost of this solution should be minimal compared to the resulting benefit,” he said.
Regional cooperation is the final goal, but Eldridge said Washington County has to get its own house in order first. “This is the only group elected to represent all 125,000 citizens,” he noted, calling for a renewed partnership with Johnson City and Jonesborough. “I hope this commission is never in the position of voting for something that benefits one group of our citizens at the expense of another. We’re better together, and we need to be the example.”