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New budget headed to a vote by Washington County commissioners

Robert Houk • Updated Jun 20, 2020 at 10:05 AM

Washington County commissioners will vote on a new a $42.5 million general fund budget on Monday following a public hearing Friday morning that saw just one person speak on the spending proposal.

Former County Commissioner Pat Wolfe told members of the county’s Budget Committee that he was representing the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, which is assisting the county in efforts to redevelop the former Ashe Street Courthouse in Johnson City.

The historical preservation organization saw its funding request reduced to $14,250 in the new budget.

“We would be glad to see $150,000 again, but I know times are tough,” Wolfe said during the public hearing, which was held in accordance to social distancing restrictions at the George P. Jaynes Justice Center.

Washington County’s proposed general fund budget was balanced after county officials approved revenue transfers of $1 million from the general debt service fund, $750,000 from the general capital projects fund and $250,000 from the education capital projects fund. 

Budget Committee members also voted last week to fund 2% pay increases for county employees and restore $48,550 in previous cuts made to spending for volunteer fire departments. 

Commissioners will also vote Monday on a new $74.1 million budget for Washington County schools, one that was balanced by the Board of Education after taking nearly $3 million from its reserve funds.

And county leaders will set the county’s property tax rate, which will remain unchanged at the current $2.15 for every $100 of valuation. Of that amount, 67 cents will go to the general fund, 14 cents to the highway fund, 74 for schools and 37 cents to debt service.  

The Budget Committee also heard Friday from a zoning enforcement officer, who raised an issue that county officials have been dealing with for more than a year. Bobby France, the county’s general welfare and safety officer for property and dwellings, he “needed some help” in doing his job.

France is responsible for responding to complaints of overgrown and neglected properties, as well as related issues involving the county’s Environmental Court.

“It can be hairy,” France said. “Like a police officer, you don’t know what situation you’ll run across.”

He told committee members he needed another employee to help him with the work, particularly in the clerical part of the job.

“It’s overwhelming,” France said. “I do all the property inspections. It’s mind boggling. I see 300 to 400 (properties) a year.”

Commissioner Jim Wheeler noted to his colleagues that’s France’s dilemma is part of an overall problem with how the county responds to Environmental Court cases and property cleanups.

“We need to be looking at the whole situation,” Wheeler said.

Commissioner Freddie Malone agreed, adding the county “had been on a path to talk about the entire process” for environmental cleanups when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) put that and other issues on hold. County officials had been looking for a way to speed up the reimbursement of court-ordered cleanups of private property.

One idea, which was considered by commissioners earlier this year, was to recoup those costs by the county trustee attaching a lien for the cleanup work to the property owner’s annual tax bill.