After nearly a year on the job, the three freshmen who represent the 4th District of the Washington County Commission say they are pleased with the new direction the county’s government has taken. Even so, Commissioners Lee Chase, Joe Corso and David Tomita say their greatest accomplishment is yet to come.
“When we pass a new budget, that will be the proudest moment I’ve had since taking office,” Tomita said last week. “It will set a precedent and create a new culture.”
It will be the second budget Tomita and his colleagues have voted on since taking office last September, but it is the first that new commissioners have had a chance to put their own stamp on. Chase said he has “worked hard” in the past year to learn the “complexities” of the county’s budgeting process as a member of the commission’s Education Committee, which is charged with reviewing the budget for county schools.
“There’s been a real learning curve,” he said.
Corso said he would be “extremely disappointed” if the county is unable to pass a budget that is balanced without using reserve funds. Commissioners are set to vote on a $150 million budget that promises to end the county’s cash flow problems.
Corso said the new budget was made possible by the commission’s decision earlier this year to restructure the county’s long-term debt. It was an important vote that has set a new tone for fiscal policy making in Jonesborough.
“It was a drastic move,” Corso said, but a needed one.
He said refinancing the debt was a cause of concern for some veteran members of the commission. “The County Commission is not a body that changes drastically,” he said.
Nonetheless, new commissioners say change is coming. “Everyone will tell you we need to move in a different direction,” Corso said.
Chase agrees, adding new commissioners elected in 2010 have “put a new face on the County Commission.”
Change, however, will not come overnight.
“I think it would be naive to think we could all march in there and make major changes,” Tomita said.
Despite the many new faces elected to the commission last August, the 4th District was the only district that saw all three of its incumbents lose re-election. That meant Chase, Corso and Tomita had no veterans from their own district to look to for guidance. Instead, the three have learned the process by delving into the myriad of issues that have come before the commission.
“We are all learning and it is exciting to be a part of that,” Corso said. “It’s very interesting to work with 25 people who represent a diversity of opinions.”
Corso and his colleagues in the 4th District have had their voices heard on a number of issues. For his part, Corso said he has tried to bring a different perspective to issues like economic development. During a debate on purchasing additional land to lure businesses to the county’s industrial park, Corso suggested more should be done to help grow existing businesses in Washington County.
Chase said he is pleased to see the commission agree to create an archive for the county’s historical documents and records. He believes it was the board’s greatest achievement this year.
“It’s really a shining accomplishment,” Chase told me.
He would also like to see the commission reduce its ranks in the next election. Chase, a member of the county’s Redistricting Committee, made a motion during that panel’s meeting in July to reduce the number of commissioners from the current 25 seats. Even though that motion failed by a vote of 9 to 1, Chase is still hopeful three or four seats can be trimmed from the board.
“We only get this opportunity every 10 years,” Chase said.
Meanwhile, Tomita told me he is keeping an eye on the county’s shrinking tax revenues. He said foreclosures, decreased property values and empty commercial buildings will require county officials to look at downsizing government.
“There’s plenty of money to do what needs to be done if we spend it right,” Tomita told me.
Spending it right will be the difficult task Tomita and his colleagues must tackle over the next three years. In other words, the real work has just begun.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.