County's capital plan is both crafty and confusing

Robert Houk • Sep 13, 2015 at 9:00 AM

I admit it, the Washington County Commission’s current debate on funding a 10-year capital improvement plan has me baffled. After all, commissioners approved a budget for the current fiscal year in July — right? And wasn’t that budget balanced without a property tax increase?

That’s why I was surprised in August to learn the county’s Budget Committee had been presented with several tax hike options for funding said capital plan. After limited debate, the committee has decided to recommend that commissioners vote on Sept. 21 to approve a 23-cent tax increase in fiscal 2015-16 to pay for this plan.

What in the Sam Hill is going on here? I’ve seen county commissioners do some goofy things over the years, but I’ve never known them to call a do-over after setting a balanced budget. And for sure, I’ve never seen them discuss a property tax hike more than two months into a new fiscal year.

It is true that when commissioners voted on the current budget on July 19, County Mayor Dan Eldridge hinted that things might be subject to change. But I doubt few commissioners and county residents could have taken that to mean a vote on a 23-cent property tax increase would be coming in September.

Such an elaborate capital plan should have been debated back in April or May when commissioners began real work on the new budget. Instead, we are asked to believe this thoroughly orchestrated capital plan was birthed only recently. Well, at least the means for funding it was. The Budget Committee, with Eldridge (the conductor of this fiscal symphony) casting the deciding vote, settled on the 23-cent option to fund the $6 million plan a few weeks ago.

Yes, the mayor’s fingerprints are all over this plan and the tax hike. That’s the way it should be. As the county’s elected chief executive officer, Eldridge not only has the right, but the obligation to set the tone on such fiscal matters.

It’s the way he has gone about that is the problem. As Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin noted to Press staff writer Gary B. Gray last month, Eldridge is certainly a bright fellow, but he might be “a bit of a schemer.”

Eldridge demonstrated his sleight of hand last month when details of the capital plan and tax options were first shown to the full County Commission. Because the item was placed under the “mayor’s report,” a non-actionable section of the agenda, commissioners were prevented from debating the issue.

That’s pretty crafty.

And it’s not just how the plan and tax hike were put together that is troubling. It’s the consequences down the road that have some concerned.

If the capital plan is approved, will the county use bonds (a portion of which must be shared with city schools because Johnson City residents pay county taxes, too) to build a new school in Boones Creek, or will it use funds from the county tax hike to build a school that city residents won’t directly benefit from? I hope we get an answer to that question on Sept. 21.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected].