Wash. Co. commissioners approve $6 million spending plan

Gary B. Gray • Aug 6, 2013 at 4:43 PM

Legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

If that thought leaves you with a befuddled feeling doing a double take, you’re not alone.

It permeated throughout the Jaynes Justice Center on Monday night as Washington County Commissioners left the building and headed for their cars after spending nearly two long hours sifting line by line and voting separately on 28 expenses.

The result? Twenty eight capital projects, equipment and other costs in a $6 million spending plan all were voted back into the original resolution that had been sent back to the county’s Budget Committee for further scrutiny.

It was “like deja vu all over again” — another Yogi-ism.

“Jail: two water heaters,” Commission Chairman Greg Matherly began at a special called County Commission meeting to vote on the resolution containing the capital projects — a resolution the Budget Committee painstakingly raked through once more at a July 26 meeting.

The resolution was the only item on the agenda. It specified the issuance of up to $6 million in general obligation bonds to provide funds for construction, renovations and equipment for the Highway Department, detention center, county archives, public safety, library, courthouse, bridge replacement and repair and renovations and equipment for county schools.

“I want to amend this matter and take line item by line item and vote on it,” requested Commissioner Mark Ferguson.

It was Ferguson who on July 22 unexpectedly introduced an amended version of the spending plan, which appeared to have already been pretty well hammered out and recommended to commissioners by the Budget Committee.

Ferguson’s one-page spreadsheet, which he introduced as a replacement for one of three resolutions pertaining to capital projects, failed by a single vote and back to the committee it went. And so it was that the original resolution returned to the floor.

“We’re about to vote on spending $6 million,” Commissioner Alpha Bridger told County Mayor Dan Eldridge on Monday. “Are you still recommending this?”

He was.

“Commissioner Bridger, I’ve done my job,” Eldridge replied. “The Budget Committee on three different occasions reviewed, line by line, the expenditures. The only remaining step in this process is for you to vote on this resolution. And I’m not so foolish to think that expressing my opinion will have any influence on what you do tonight.”

Ferguson’s amendment passed in a close 13-11 vote, and the fork in the road appeared.

Some commissioners shook their heads from side to side. Others looked sternly forward. A few chuckled.

There were a few close votes on courthouse painting and renovations and courthouse security improvements, but the longest discussion was over the price of a new asphalt plant and new trucks and equipment.

Commissioner Roger Nave called out Highway Department Superintendent Johnny Deakins.

“Two months ago, we asked you what your fund balance was, and you said $1.3 million,” Nave said. “The next morning, I called Bobbye (Webb, Accounts and Budgets Office director), and she told me it was about $4 million.”

Deakins walked to the podium and told Nave he had said at the time that he had a roughly $1.7 million fund balance.

“But that was long before we closed the books,” Deakins said.

The plant, which was built in 1974, was estimated to cost about $700,000. But that was long before Deakins added new and more expensive controls to the plant, as well as demolition costs.

“I’ve been told by people I think are knowledgeable that the trucks and equipment may not be needs,” Commissioner Phyllis Corso told Deakins.

She also said she didn’t like the way the Highway Department’s estimated expenses were “handed to us piecemeal.”

The only unanimous vote on any line item was the $940,000 for school security improvements. The county will see about $500,000 of that; Johnson City will receive a $440,000 share.

Director of Schools Ron Dykes said the Board of Education will spend the money at their discretion, but the majority will go toward security needs uncovered by a recent risk assessment. The $500,000 likely will be only half of what is needed, he said.

Once each item had been covered, a vote on the original resolution ensued. Commissioners Sam Humphreys, David Shanks and Corso were the naysayers in the 22-3 count.

It’s worth noting that issuing the debt does not obligate the county to spend the entire $6 million. Neither does it obligate the county to spend the specific dollar amounts identified for projects and equipment, and some of this money could wind up back in the capital projects fund for later use.

Also, there are different funding mechanisms, or methods, for various expenditures within the overall $6 million spending plan. For example, debt incurred to pay for school security improvements will be paid for through the county’s debt service fund. The asphalt plant, trucks, equipment and bridge repair will come out of the county’s highway fund.

When the money is borrowed, it will go into the capital projects fund.

Guess what happens after that? The full commission must vote again to budget money for each item.

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