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Funds going up in flames? City manager calls Washington County's move ‘complete surprise’

August 31st, 2011 7:34 am by Gary B. Gray

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge wants to pull the Johnson City Fire Department’s $100,000 annual allocation from the county’s proposed 2011-12 proposed budget based on his finding the money no longer is being directed to the fire department but into the city’s general fund instead.

“The fact that the money was going into the general fund did play a part in my decision,” Eldridge said Tuesday. “We went over this (appropriations) very carefully, line by line. I did not know how the money was being appropriated, and I still am not aware of how it is being appropriated . We’ve tried to do this in a manner we felt would create the least impact.”

Some Johnson City officials have been on edge as the Washington County Commission continues to rake through its proposed budget, which includes eliminating funding to the JCFD and a reduction to the Johnson City Seniors’ Center.

County commissioners voted Monday to defer passage of the budget. But should it be approved without changes, the JCFD will take a $100,000 hit.

“This comes as a complete surprise and is very disappointing,” City Manager Pete Peterson said via email late Monday. “The City generates over half of the property taxes and over 75 percent of the total sales taxes generated in Washington County, while city residents,who are also Washington County residents, receive very few services from the county other than operation of the court system.”

The Press emailed and telephoned Peterson asking if he would care to comment on Eldridge’s remarks. Peterson did not respond Tuesday.

The Johnson City Fire Department has a long history of helping and working with the other fire departments in the county and have come to their aid beyond the corporate limits anytime it has been requested, Peterson said Monday.

Washington County has also helped fund the Jonesborough Fire Department and seven volunteer fire departments. The budget proposes Jonesborough, which was given $100,000 last year, and the volunteer fire departments be funded again this year.

The Seniors’ Center received $50,000 from the county last year. This year’s proposed amount is $43,250. The Washington County-Johnson City Emergency Management Agency, located in Johnson City, also receives county funding but is not set for any reductions this year.

“At this time, we are unsure of what the impact will be to service provided by the Johnson City Fire Department,” Peterson said Monday. “The city’s fire department has been funded and treated equally to the other fire departments in the county for many years. If approved as proposed, this will be a reduction in funding equal to the salary of three firefighters.”

The city fire department’s 2012 budget is about $8.5 million. It serves more than 63,000 city residents as well as about 12,400 East Tennessee State University students, 400 residents at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, and thousands of daily commuters.

The department has 120 members of whom 110 are dedicated to fire suppression, haz-mat and medical first response operations. The department operates three shifts with approximately 35 firefighters working per 24-hour shift. Firefighters respond from nine fire stations.

“We are hopeful that the county commissioners representing portions of Johnson City will protect the interests of those they are elected to represent, and maintain funding in the budget that is approved,” Peterson said.

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