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County pushes city on sales tax referendum

Gary B. Gray • Jan 28, 2012 at 10:58 PM

An unexpectedly high number of Washington County commissioners showed up at Thursday’s City/County Liaison Committee meeting in an open and overt push to get the city officially onboard to sell voters on a local option sales tax increase.

The county has approved a referendum on the matter, which will be placed on the Aug. 7 primary ballot. Voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax in Washington County from the current 2.5 percent to 2.75 percent — an increase targeted for education.

County Attorney John Rambo specifically asked that City Manager Pete Peterson have the City Commission draft a resolution stating its open and official support for the referendum, and that an agreement be drawn up that will officially state both the city and county will give all revenues derived from a tax increase to education. Even more specifically, that the funds would be divided equally, and that all tax increase-related money would be placed in a budget line item and be used for educational operations only.

Peterson told Rambo the city was letting the county take the lead since it was the governmental body that secured the referendum. He also said city commissioners and the Johnson City Board of Education were in general agreement as to how the revenues would be used.

“We were going to draw up an agreement that binds the city to put all the revenues toward education — not in a general fund. It would go into one fund — period,” Rambo said tersely.

“Are you looking for a show of moral support for this?” asked Johnson City Vice Mayor Phil Carriger.

“No, we want an agreement,” Rambo replied.

Peterson agreed to make that happen.

About a dozen county officials were on hand. Peterson, Carriger, and Commissioners Jane Myron and Ralph Van Brocklin represented the city.

“I think what people need to understand is that it is mathematically impossible to fund county schools at the same level as city schools,” said County Mayor Dan Eldridge.

Eldridge was referencing the state’s Basic Education Program’s equalization funding formula, which is driven primarily by property values and sales tax.

Both the Johnson City and Washington County boards of education have adopted resolutions calling for a referendum to raise the sales tax within the county, saying unfunded mandates and increasing operational costs have made it harder to adequately fund education.

The last sales tax hike in Washington County was approved in May 1994, when city and county school officials joined in a push for passage of a countywide referendum. That successful campaign raised the local option sales tax from 2.25 percent to the current 2.5 percent. The referendum’s margin of victory was 1,512 votes with nearly 12,000 votes cast.

Further attempts in 2000 and 2004 were heartily thumped by more than 2-1 margins.

County Commissioner Joe Corso reminded committee members of these attempts which were “soundly defeated.”

“Recall that it was not identified that the increase would go directly to education,” he said.

Currently, the state keeps 7 percent of Washington County’s 9.5 percent sales tax rate. The local rate is 2.5 percent but would rise to a maximum 2.75 percent if increased, bringing the total sales tax rate to 9.75 — the maximum currently allowed by state law.

Meanwhile, county commissioners, Eldridge, Superintendent of Schools Ron Dykes and Rambo also asked for a few other things, including more frequent meetings, a more varied selection of city and school staff in attendance, a broad request that communication between the two governing bodies be tighter and that information be made more accessible and transparent on both sides.

“I think what you saw was the county clearly revealing their intentions that they are serious about working with the city as an equal partner,” Eldridge said Friday. “You saw them step up. As far as the referendum, it’s going to have to be a campaign about the school systems and the benefits that they will gain from the additional revenue.”

When pressed about his desire to see a sales tax increase, Eldridge chose to remain neutral.

“I’ve not taken a position,” he said. “I want our school systems to get together on this so we can have a clear understanding about where we’re heading.”

The Liaison Committee has been a hit-and-miss endeavour, and many meetings in the past have been poorly attended or canceled.

Peterson sat in a prominent position and took the reins at Thursday’s meeting while guiding members and attendees through various informational items.

County Commissioners Pete Speropulos and Lee Chase raised the question of who, if anyone, actually chaired the committee or served as moderator. No one had any answers. They also asked if an agenda is normally formulated for the meeting. There has been none.

The result: Chase volunteered to head the meetings for now, and an agenda will be compiled prior to future meetings.

Speropulos also suggested the committee meet on a more regular basis to facilitate better communication. The group, when it has not canceled meetings, has been gathering on a quarterly basis. Speropulos suggested the committee meet every two months. That idea yielded no objections.

A request by the Johnson City Press for a list of committee members from the city cited Myron as chairwoman. The list of five county commissioners, three city commissioners, plus Peterson, was compiled in August 2009 when Myron was mayor. Since that time there has been one municipal election and one county election that seated all 25 commissioners.

The City/County Liaison Committee will hold its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. March 22 at Johnson City’s Municipal & Safety Building, 601 E. Main St.

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