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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
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As I See It

A couple of commissioners are plotting, scheming again

September 19th, 2011 10:28 am by Robert Houk

The tomfoolery over the new Washington County budget has me thinking Jonesborough has been sucked into a time warp. Is it 2011 or 1992?
Recent actions by the County Commission are more like something that would have gone on in 1984. Then it was Commissioner George Jaynes and the late Roy Phillips (then the county clerk and one of the craftiest political operators I’ve ever seen) conspiring to make life terrible for the county executive at the time, the late Bob Good.
It was all political fun and games with commissioners and elected courthouse officeholders choosing sides. It was country folks versus city slickers, or progressives versus conservatives. Sometimes the feuds resulted in compromise, but more often these skirmishes represented little more than a political soap opera with plots that centered around nepotism and cronyism. It wasn’t pretty to watch.
Things had settled down substantially during the latter portion of Jaynes’ tenure as county mayor. As I have mentioned before, Jaynes outlived or outlasted most of his political rivals. Peace and tranquility reigned in Jonesborough.
That was until a new county mayor was elected in 2010. Jaynes’ successor, Dan Eldridge, is a true outsider when it comes to the dirty world of county politics. He took office with some crazy expectations, like believing county commissioners should conduct themselves as professionals. And Eldridge had a few nutty ideas, like thinking the county’s budget should be balanced without dipping into reserve funds every year.
Earlier this month, Eldridge learned first-hand how vicious county politics can be. Commissioners were all set to vote on a new $35 million general fund budget when a ghost from the past reached into the second floor of the Washington County Courthouse and turned things upside down.
This spirit spoke through Commissioner Mark Ferguson, who successfully cut what he said was another $1.7 million from the general fund budget. Most of these items came directly from the county mayor’s budget. Commissioners cut insurance payments for employees in Eldridge’s office and axed funding for Jeff Keeling’s job as county communications director.
As it turns out the logic for these cuts was as faulty as the budget cutters’ math. A review of the numbers found the cuts actually totaled $799,040. And making these cuts (most of which the county’s Budget Committee have recommended to be restored) would have cost the county the loss of matching grants, created legal headaches and harmed the county’s relationship with Johnson City and Jonesborough.
Because county commissioners have already voted to adopt a 2011-12 budget that exceeds $34 million, they will have to approve amendments later this month to make things right. Commissioners should also be prepared to make other amendments to the new budget as the fiscal year progresses.
County Highway Superintendent John Deakins Jr. has agreed to cut $340,000 from his new budget with the understanding that he will be back to ask for that money when he is ready to buy new equipment.
Likewise, Sheriff Ed Graybeal has cut another $105,000 from his budget, although there is some thought that the sheriff may need some of those funds returned to cover the insurance cost of employees’ dependents.
Despite the budget circus, county taxpayers will not see an increase to the property tax rate this year. The tax remains unchanged at $1.91 for every $100 of valuation. Of that rate, 70.61 cents go to the general fund budget, 69.74 cents go to schools, 32.29 go to debt service, 14.84 cents go for highways and 3.91 cents go for sanitation services. Earlier this year, commissioners approved a long-term debt refinancing plan that allowed budget makers to move 6.7 cents from the debt load to the general fund.
Commissioners are expected to take up budget amendments at their regular meeting on Sept. 26 and it’s possible that we could see more mischief from Ferguson and his cohorts. I understand the plotting and scheming has not ceased.
This budget debacle has been the best argument I know for why the County Commission should reduce its numbers. Do we really need 25 commissioners? After all it’s not 1992, it’s 2011. Then again, we only had 24 commissioners in 1992.

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