New county budget

Washington County commissioners listen Thursday to speakers who said they were opposed to a plan to redirect a share of local sales tax from education to the county's general fund.

The Washington County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to send a new $43.9 million general fund budget back to the drawing board.

Commissioner Bryan Davenport made the motion to scrap a plan to take local option sales tax dollars from education to balance the proposed budget. His motion also directed the proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, be sent back to the Budget Committee for members to consider either cutting spending or using reserve funds to “cover the gap.”

The Budget Committee had recommended $3 million from the urban portion of local option sales tax revenues that the county has earmarked since 1990 for Washington County and Johnson City schools be redirected to erase a deficit in the general fund.

The move would take a projected $1.6 million from county schools and $1.4 million from city schools in new fiscal year.

A number of commissioners expressed opposition to the sales tax reallocation. Commissioner Kent Harris said the county has a “spending problem” involving “money going to pet projects,” and suggested there are many “places in the budget” that could be cut.

“But schools are definitely not one of them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jodi Jones suggested she and her colleagues look at what she called a “modest” 10-cent property tax increase to cover the budget deficit and to fund essential items.

“I believe Washington County is a place worth investing in projects that are beautiful and inspire tourism,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners heard from a number of county residents expressing opposition to redirecting the sales tax funds. Among them were Johnson City officials, including City Manager Pete Peterson and Mayor Joe Wise. Peterson told commissioners that he believes “funding education is not an expenditure, it’s an investment.”

Wise agreed, adding that a “budget is a statement of a community’s values.”

All 14 commissioners present at Thursday’s meeting (Commissioner Mike Ford was absent) voted to send the budget back to committee. Commissioner Phil Carriger also suggested the board, which will meet in its regular monthly meeting on Monday, should take up the budget issue then.

Meanwhile, members of the Budget Committee told their colleagues that putting off passage of the budget would not address key issues related to spending and revenue growth in the county. Commissioner Freddie Malone said using reserve funds to balance the budget — as commissioners did last year to cover a $3 million deficit — would simply be “kicking the can down the road for another year.”

Commissioner Jim Wheeler agreed, and challenged his colleagues to pinpoint where they would make $1 million in spending cuts in the new budget by July 10.

“These cuts won’t be easy and we need to get some kind of buy-in from commissioners,” he said. “Three million dollars is a whole lot to trim.”

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Press Senior Reporter

Robert Houk has served as a journalist and photographer at the Press since 1987. He is a recipient of the Associated Press Managing Editors Malcom Law Award for investigative reporting.

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