Development group looks to Jonesborough for higher contribution

Nathan Baker • Dec 20, 2013 at 10:23 AM

The role of Tennessee’s oldest town in shaping economic development in Washington County and the contribution it makes to those efforts was questioned Thursday at a meeting of the soon-to-be authorized organization overseeing growth in the county.

Responding to a recent request from the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen to be included in the Washington County Economic Development Council’s Executive Committee, County Mayor and committee member Dan Eldridge said he was concerned that allowing the town’s inclusion on the committee would diminish the voting power of sitting members and questioned the municipality’s historically discounted fee to retain a seat on the full board.

“I expressed the concern during the Executive Committee meeting,” Eldridge said. “I’m the one that made the suggestion that we include Jonesborough, but at the same time, I expressed a concern that we present this in a manner that does not in any way diminish the value of the private sector investment. I think that was a concern that was shared throughout the room in that Executive Committee meeting.”

The full council is made up of representatives of public and private entities in the county, all of which contribute money to the continuing operations of the organization to perform economic development activities.

Its charter defines voting members from the county’s two previously existing development entities, the city Public Building Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayors of Washington County, Johnson City and Jonesborough, a county and city commissioner, a property owner, a member of the Johnson City Power Board and an unlimited number of private investors.

Voting rights on the board cost most of the voters an annual contribution of $25,000, although a number of the private business representatives join together to pay the fee and share a vote.

When considering total contributions spread across various board and development funding sources, Washington County pays about $146,000 and Johnson City pays $360,000, WCEDC CEO Mitch Miller said Thursday.

At the inception of the council, Jonesborough was made a full member at a discounted contribution rate of $7,000.

The Executive Committee’s basic function is recommending actions for the full council to consider and can represent the full body in contractual negotiations. It is made up of eight members, including EDC leaders, the county mayor and a commissioner, the city manager and a commissioner and a Power Board member.

This month, the Jonesborough aldermen put off a vote on making the WCEDC the state-recognized development arm under Public Chapter 1101, citing concerns that the town did not have representation on the Executive Committee under the new agreement.

Jonesborough is the last holdout on the intergovernmental agreement, with both Johnson City and Washington County approving the measure.

“The decision of whether or not to include Jonesborough in this newly reconstituted intergovernmental agreement is up to someone else other than us,” Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe said Thursday. “I believe it would be very unfortunate and send the wrong signal to exclude one of the three governmental entities from your economic development council.”

But Eldridge and others at the meeting said allowing Jonesborough a voice on the committee without the full membership contribution could send the wrong message to private-sector members sharing votes by diminishing their influence.

“I think it basically boiled down to we wanted at the time, we were trying to get this thing to go together, and we wanted Jonesborough in,” Gerald Thomas, owner of Thomas Construction, said. “We probably did compromise, and it probably was a mistake at that time, but we wanted them in there.”

Thomas said Jonesborough does contribute to the local economy with its festivals and infrastructure, but recommended the council request the town meet the minimum contribution level before gaining a seat on the Executive Committee.

Wolfe, however, said the town is unlikely to up its funding.

“We already have a budget in place for the year, and we’re a municipality of just 5,200 people,” he said. “I can’t speak for the entire board, but I simply don’t see us at this point being able to contribute more.”

Wolfe pointed out that Jonesborough’s wastewater treatment plant provides service to the county’s industrial park in Telford at a considerable expense in materials and worker salaries.

Ultimately, Wolfe said the town would respect the decision of the Economic Development Council, and said the intergovernmental agreement will likely pass at the board’s next meeting.

“We’re supportive of their efforts overall, we just want to continue to be a part of shaping those economic decisions,” he said.

Related story:

County Commissioners wait on Jonesborough's decision to recognize county economic group

Johnson City leaders OK sole economic entity

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