Funding questions cloud commissioners' improvement goals

Tony Casey • Apr 19, 2014 at 9:26 PM

Though there were many things to discuss during Saturday morning’s informal strategic planning meeting of the Johnson City Commission — from the development of intersections to boost business to high-speed Internet — the conversation nearly always drifted back to the topic of how future plans will be funded.

The goal of Commissioners David Tomita, Jenny Brock and Jeff Banyas, Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and City Manager Pete Peterson was to work through 11 goals for how to improve Johnson City over the next four years and highlight realistic ways how those improvements could be made.

Tomita noted in the end how strong the communication between the board has been in the process of tackling the improvements, better than he’s seen in the past, but many of the goals would need additional funding to be carried out.

Tomita was the biggest proponent of using the assets the city already had in spreading around the wealth to programs that need funding rather than any kind of tax increase.

Stout took firm footing on squeezing tighter with belt-tightening to make the most of funds that might already be there, suggesting ideas involving two golf courses Johnson City operates or other athletic facilities across the city where money could be saved instead of a tax increase that might not sit well with taxpayers in the current economic climate.

“The average taxpayer sees the waste in Nashville or in (Washington) D.C. and (is) uncomfortable with a tax increase,” Stout said.

A hypothetical 50-cent property tax increase on city residents was brought up by Pat Hardy, a municipal management consultant, which would be added to the current rate of $1.58. Tomita distanced himself from the idea as quickly as possible. Peterson said he had the rough numbers handy and it would cost the average city resident — owners of a $150,000 house — about $187 a year.

Van Brocklin said squeezing tighter can be done, but the money needs to be there to tackle many of the projects discussed.

“You need adequate funding to hold to the strategic mission,” Van Brocklin said.

Brock pointed to the work Peterson had done in keeping taxes low over recent years, but called their current conundrum “the day of reckoning.”

A big issue in recent years has been the city’s having to use money from its fund balance, which Peterson said roughly was once at about $20 million, but now sits at more than $14 million, with the very basement number sitting at around $12 million, which is all restricted money. For the first time, Peterson said, they’ve had to use the fund balance for reoccurring costs, like equipment. For example, Peterson said the city requires a $250,000 street sweeper because it’s becoming too expensive to continue buying parts to repair their current machine.

Equipment, Stout said, could be an issue with taxpayers, because it would be difficult to tell small-business owners they need to pay more taxes when they see Johnson City buying the newest and biggest trucks on the market for their crews.

Some of the goals set forth by the board include putting money aside for neighborhood groups that would like to better their spaces. They could either spend the cash on infrastructure improvements at once or save toward a bigger project. Also, board members want to get behind a push to help local youths fight crime and drugs, starting with help from East Tennessee State University’s nationally known public health school to seek a recommendation on a course of action.

Commissioners also pointed at reutilizing property in the downtown area to bring in business, as well as using unused properties like empty shopping centers for call centers, which have done extremely well in other cities.

Tomita said call center jobs might not be sexy, but bringing in an extra few hundred $10-$11-per-hour jobs wouldn’t be a bad thing. Plus, it would be much harder to get a Kmart or similar business in there than a call center.

Getting outside businesses and people to invest in Johnson City is a large goal of the group, and one way Van Brocklin says this can be done is through what Tomita calls a “quick hit,” in fixing the city’s website, which he says is difficult to navigate.

Another quick hit might be using local schools to better prepare students for the job world, be it going through customer- service training or a more hands-on job, like masonry.

Hardy concluded that the goals could be organized and given to the city’s staff to start sorting out how they could be put into practice.

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