Fiscal policy a key issue in the 9th District

Robert Houk • Jul 7, 2018 at 11:35 PM

Republican incumbent Suzy Williams is seeking her first full term on the Washington County Commission in the 9th District. Williams was appointed last year in to fill an unexpired term on the board. She faces Democratic candidate Dennis Prater, an educator who is making his first bid for public office in the Aug. 2 general election.

1. What is it about your personal and professional background that makes you the most qualified to hold this office?

Prater: I am an adjunct instructor at East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College. Adjuncts are part-time, low-wage workers without affordable health insurance or job security.

I have an understanding of what it’s like for many people who work a lot but struggle to make ends meet in today’s economy. As a professional educator, I value learning. That’s why I’ve been working hard going door-to-door, speaking with residents of my district and learning what is important to them.

I have no ties to the local elites, and I am much more interested in hearing what the regular people in my district think.

Williams: The Washington County Commission has the huge responsibility to oversee all aspects of county services. The commission does not have a single focus.

In my 48 years of of being a resident of Washington County, I have had diverse experience by serving on the Johnson City Board of Education, Mountain States Foundation, which developed Niswonger Children’s Hospital; the Children’s Advocacy Center, which assists victims of child abuse; the Junior League; the Johnson City Symphony; and Young Life of East Tennessee.

Currently, I am on the Health Promotions Committee of the Medical Alliance of Washington, Unicoi and Johnson counties, which is involved in combating the opioid crisis. I am also president of the East Tennessee Republican Club.

The combination of my experiences within the above organizations and other associations has given me the knowledge to be an effective commissioner of the 9th District, where I have lived all my time in Johnson City.

2. What do you think is the most challenging issue facing Washington County?

Prater: We are challenged to find a way to have equitable economic development for all, not just for a few. As our area grows, we need to make sure we keep affordability front and center. Recent reports have emphasized the job growth in our area, but we are adding three low-wage jobs for each good job.

We need a community wealth-building approach, including support for co-operatives 100 percent owned and operated by local people who aren’t going to up and leave, community land trusts to keep rent affordable and participatory budgeting to involve the voices of more people.

Williams: Adequate funding is the most challenging issue facing Washington County. Distribution of tax revenue has some state mandated directives that are detrimental to Washington County. These would have to be changed by the state Legislature.

Of primary concerns is how to fund teacher salaries within the Washington County School System to become competitive in our area.

3. Under what circumstances would you vote for a property tax increase?

Prater: I’m reluctant to raise property taxes for working-class people. Foreclosures have risen 61 percent. Rent is rising faster than income. Around half of Johnson City renters are “cost burdened,” with more than 30 percent of their income going to housing.

We need to be creative. The county budget is tight, so I would like to see the County Commission pass a resolution calling on the state of Tennessee to accept the Medicaid expansion. This would bring us money that could be used to treat the opioid crisis and improve the financial position of county residents, increasing sales tax revenue.

Williams: None! The property tax rate was raised in June 2016 to cover capital needs of the county school system and school buses, as well as communication systems and other one-time improvements. From now on, it’s management of existing county income that will have to be budgeted realistically.

4. What is your vision of how the working relationship should be between the County Commission and the county mayor?

Prater: The relationship between the County Commission and the county mayor should be transparent, open and public. People deserve to know what is happening and why. Any communication on public matters should be public knowledge.

Additionally, all elected parties should work to make information as accessible as possible. For example, the website of the county mayor should list the mayor’s salary. Also, the County Commission should maintain close touch with residents in the districts and propose alternative ideas to the mayor. It is our job to make it easier for people to connect with their government.

Williams: The county mayor has the responsibility to define the needs of the county by listening to the residents’ concerns and the various department heads and then communicate to the various committees of the commission, which in turn make recommendations to the Budget Committee. After the Budget Committee approves, then recommendations are presented to the full County Commission for a vote.

The new commission with just 15 members serving can have a clearer picture of all areas of county business. A smart, insightful Mayor has an opportunity to enhance the life of our citizens by cohesively working with the commission.

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