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County mayor, commissioners play tug of war over spending methods

July 22nd, 2013 9:12 pm by Gary B. Gray

County mayor, commissioners play tug of war over spending methods

Mark Ferguson and Dan Eldridge


Hours of debate, political finger-pointing and a merging of old and new budget numbers took Washington County commissioners near the four-hour mark Monday, when a proposed $9.5 million spending plan fell to about $4 million.


That’s $4 million worth of projects, expenditures and equipment that was recommended by the county’s Budget Committee to be paid for by issuing debt at just more than 1 percent interest. Instead, an amended plan introduced by Commissioner Mark Ferguson sent about $1 million back into the fiscal 2014 budget. This reduction also removed from the Highway Department $620,000 for trucks and equipment and $455,000 for bridge and replacement repair from the plan. 


“I guess we don’t get new bridges,” said Highway Department Superintendent Johnny Deakins while sitting in his seat with a confused look on his face.


It was the first of three separate resolutions that sent commissioners into a tizzy, and the complicated math and jumbled numbers caused enough of a stir to prompt a special called County Commission meeting Aug. 5 to revisit the plan, which in its original form topped out at $6 million.


This resolution included capital projects and $500,000 to pay for county school security improvements, plus a city share of about $430,000. About $155,000 to renovate the district attorney’s office at the Jaynes Justice center was pulled from the resolution.


As has happened in the past, one vote turned the tide — in two separate votes. 


The first vote on Ferguson’s amended version failed in a 12-11 vote. Twelve commissioners voted for the amended resolution. But two commissioners were absent, and there must be 13 votes to carry the day. 


Next, commissioners voted on the original resolution as presented by County Mayor Dan Eldridge and recommended by the county’s Budget Committee.


Again, the measure failed in a 12-11 vote, with 12 commissioners voting against.


After at least an hour of debate over this first resolution, Commissioner and Budget Committee member Joe Grandy suggested commissioners “go over every expense, line by line.”


“At our last Budget Committee meeting, we had several commissioners there, but there was no positive feedback,” said Mitch Meredith, commissioner and Budget Committee member.


That idea was rejected in favor of the special called meeting Aug. 5, where this particular resolution will undergo yet another raking.


Two other resolutions passed. The first was the issuance of $2.9 million for school projects. The second is a $1.4 million bond to reimburse the school system for buses and the cost of reroofing and other equipment and to pay the county’s share of the Knob Creek Road right-of-way acquisition.


Three new School Security Officers will be paid for this school year through the Sheriff’s Office budget. The total cost for three new SROs and one supervisor is $185,868.


The main argument was over whether to borrow the full amounts. Eldridge and some commissioners said it was a matter of fiscal urgency that the money be borrowed now, because the rates are low, the county fund balance is high — about $17 million — and a healthy reserve would be better utilized when rates increase.


“Our general fund budget already was $1.9 million out of balance,” he said. “Now it’s about $2.8 million out of balance.”


Eldridge told commissioners before the numbers were scrambled that they needed to decide how to pay for the expenditures before the county’s budget could be fully formed. That’s when Ferguson popped up with a two-sided sheet of paper on which he had reconstructed the amended version of the first resolution. The majority of commissioners appeared surprised, and it looked like most were seeing the document for the very first time. 


Remember, this happened Monday, a few weeks after Commissioners Ferguson, Sam Humphreys and David Shanks walked out of a Budget Committee meeting after making very brief comments about their opposition to borrowing such a large amount.


“I agree now is a good time to be borrowing money — not for needs,” Ferguson said, referring to other minor expenditures he and others felt could be paid for from other means.


At the beginning of the meeting, Eldridge addressed the spending on courthouse renovations and what he felt had turned into an unnecessary spat between Ferguson, the County-Owned Property Committee chairman, and himself.


“Unfortunately, we’re seeing the business of the citizens of our county devolve into a personal issue,” he said. I’ve been accused of lying. We’ve got a broken process. We’re pursuing political agendas. There have been some pretty wild claims. As you can see, we’re not going to spend $1 million (renovations are estimated at $225,000). We never intended to. The County-Owned Property Committee has misrepresented the plan.”


Commissioner Alpha Bridger, who also is a committee member, told Eldridge, “Our committee system is not broken. I do not appreciate the way you’re acting.”


“If you would consider attending the meetings, it would help a lot,” Ferguson said.


Phyllis Corso, who earlier was read and then handed personally a resolution signed by Gov. Bill Haslam by state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, regarding her late husband and former commissioner Joe Corso’s service to the community, ended the spat with these words: “Democracy is a real messy process sometimes. It’s not always polite. I don’t think the floor of this commission is the place for finger-pointing. Committees are the place to hash things out.” 


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