County Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford, left, and County Mayor Dan Eldridge participated in the Johnson City Press-sponsored Community Editorial Board Tuesday evening. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Candidates for Washington County mayor participated Tuesday in the Johnson City Press-sponsored Community Editorial Board meeting at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough — a venue packed to its capacity, with many left standing outside.
Incumbent Mayor Dan Eldridge, and challenger, county Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford, fielded questions from Press Opinion Page Editor and moderator Robert Houk, as well as one question selected from the audience.
The Press’ Editorial Board will be endorsing a mayoral candidate prior to the May 6 Republican primary, and its members will use what they learned about each candidate at the forum to help in that decision.
Eldridge: I’d like to start out by thanking you for allowing me to be your mayor. I came into this four years ago with a certain set of expectations. You heard me say again and again how concerned I was for the benefit of my children. I’ve had so many people ask, ‘Dan, why would you run for office again?’ I have gained an appreciation for the people in Washington County. I look forward to where we’re headed. We’re in a good financial position, and I want to build on that.
Rutherford: I believe Washington County is the best place in the world to work and raise a family. I’ve been associated with Washington County government for nearly 30 years. Our government has become fractured. Our government does not communicate. Public opinion of our government is at an all-time low. Our government does not have to be that way.
What grade would you give for the fiscal soundness of Washington County? A, B, C, D or F — and explain your grade?
Eldridge: I would absolutely give Washington County an “A” for fiscal soundness. We were just reviewed by Moody’s and were rated AA2. That’s two steps from a AAA, which is the best you can get. Washington County has the highest fund balance in its history, and our revenues and expenditures are in balance. In fact, the last three years, our revenues have exceeded expenditures. Looking at what we’ve been able to do over the years, I can’t help but be pleased.’
Rutherford: We may have the highest fund balance in history, but we also have the highest debt. I’m going to give it a “C.” From where I sit, I see a lot of services that need to be improved.
Do you believe county government has an obligation to work with the city of Johnson City and the town of Jonesborough on projects that are mutually beneficial to all the county’s taxpayers, and if so, what type of cooperative projects would lyou ike to see the county and area municipalities pursue?
Rutherford: Absolutely so. I’m in constant contact with the City of Johnson City and the town of Jonesborough. When I look at maps, city limits disappear. Separately, we can’t do it. We are one. We are Washington County.
Eldridge: My goal is not to work with Johnson City as a competitor, but as a partner. To think we can do something that benefits one partner and hurts another is not good for business. There are a lot of things we’ve accomplished working together — our schools. It doesn’t all hit the newspaper; it doesn’t have to. I don’t need to see my name in the newspaper.
Do you think the county government is living up to its responsibility to adequately fund education? Please explain your position.
Eldridge: Yes, yes it is. There is a very significant disparity in funding for the Johnson City school system and the Washington County school system. When the state adopted its policy on how sales tax is collected, with 88 percent being collected in Johnson City, the need to increase funding in our county schools grows every year. If this very complex system of funding is not addressed, we will have problems. I can tell you we already understand those problems, but I believe over the next three to four years we can make things better.
Rutherford: I haven’t sat down with Mr. Dykes and talked about this in detail, but there is never an end to the amount of money the schools need.
Describe your working relationship with the County Commission.
Rutherford: Currently, I’m employed by the County Commission, and I’ve been in that position for 30 years. I work with the County Commission closer than anybody in county government. The commissioners I work with are starved for information, and we spend a lot of time researching for them. If the commissioners are asking questions, someone’s not doing their job.
Eldridge: After the first year I chose to step down as commission chairman. I did that because there was little differentiation in serving in that role and in my role in the executive branch of government. I think it’s helped clarify my role, and the commission’s role. Our County Commission is starting to be more effective in establishing what their roles are. The first thing I did as mayor was to create the communications director position. The County Commission, after one year, chose to discontinue that position.
Explain your philosophy on Annexation and tell us what you think of the annexation-by-referendum bill being pushed by our local lawmakers.
Eldridge: There’s a time and place for it. It needs to be, though, the result of careful planning. Unfortunately, Johnson City’s urban growth boundary was created too large. That probably created some situations. People affected by annexation do need to have a vote in the process. The urban growth boundary has to shrink. Our ability to fund the school system continues to be affected. I’m pleased to tell you I suggested farmland be removed from the current Senate bill, and that has happened.
Rutherford: It’s the city’s right to annex. To say I have a different philosophy than state law would not be my style. The Gray residents turned to their representatives for help. With my experience, I can tell you (Public Chapter) 1101 is under review, and we’re not going to like what comes out of it. You won’t see Johnson City pull back.
Do you have any fear that growth in Washington County might also suffer from restrictive annexation laws? Do you have any thoughts what this annexation law might mean to the county’s collection of sales taxes?
Rutherford: If nothing was there and you were collecting no sales tax, and they annexed it and collected taxes, what did we lose? The further we get from the point, the more it gets kicked around like a political football. The people in Gray are concerned with their homes and their property.
Eldridge: I think the answer to that is no. I think it changes the landscape. It causes us to have to work together. I absolutely see that this could be a net positive for Washington County. It will help us realize we have an opportunity for growth. I do see it as requiring us to bring our cooperation with Johnson City and Jonesborough to a new level.
What do you think about Common Core and its requirements?
Eldridge: Quite frankly, my first opinion on this is that it’s been extremely misunderstood. I think we need to take a step back and concentrate on improving our schools in Washington County. We need to be asking, does Common Core achieve our objectives? My issue is I wish our focus was on results. That’s fine if Common Core doesn’t compromise concerns I’ve heard.
Rutherford: I think there’s going to have to be much more information before I can make a statement.
Rutherford: When I’m elected, my first goal is to restore our relationship with Johnson City. I’ll knock down those barriers. I’ll never make any promises I can’t deliver. I’ll take the hinges off my door so you can literally walk in and see me. I will be bringing the good news, not the bad.
Eldridge: Things in Washington County are changing, and it is for the good. We’ve done a lot in three and a half years. I’m excited. I think the people have spoken. You expect stewardship and care-taking of taxpayer dollars. If we are expecting success to result in Washington County from the influence of Washington, D.C., we’ll never see it. If we expect it from Nashville, we’ll never see it. If we want to succeed, it will be generated from right here in Washington County.