Mayoral candidates Grandy and Tester tussle over ads debt reduction demands | WJHL
JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — Political ads for Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy tout the executive’s first term of “debt reduction” — but his opponent disputes the numbers.
As Tuesday’s Republican primary approaches, Grandy’s challenger, second-term County Commissioner Robbie Tester, launched his own ad. He says Grandy’s claims about debt reduction during his four-year term ending in September are misleading.
At the center of the duels of demands? If it is appropriate to brag about reducing the debt from $171 million to $137 million while excluding the overall cost of a new Jonesborough K-8 school (north of $50 million) currently under construction in from county debt figures.
“The numbers I’m talking about are for the four years that I was mayor and when I came in the debt was here, and today the debt is here,” Grandy told News Channel 11. years is not a present debt.
The tester told News Channel 11 that Grandy’s advertising claims may be technically correct, but lack context.
“In full transparency, I think people need to know,” Tester said. “People need to know, yes we’re getting a school in Jonesborough, but here’s what it’s going to cost.”
News Channel 11 investigated the two candidates’ claims, including speaking to the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office (TCO) to find out what expenses it considers a debt that should show up in county audits. We also reviewed Washington County audits and ads from both candidates, emailed them for clarification, and then spoke to them on camera.
A political mailer from Grandy claims the county’s debt has fallen “from $165 million to $132 million so far,” a decrease of $33 million, or 20%. A recently released video ad uses slightly different numbers of $172 million and $137 million.
“A $33 million cut so far (actually $35 million),” a narrator’s voice says as the difference from the first ad appears on screen. “Without tax increases. And two new schools.
Grandy said the figures represent the county’s general bond long-term debt from the exact same section of the audit – long-term bonds, general government.
“That’s what was reduced during my tenure as mayor, so it’s from 2018 to 2022,” Grandy said, adding that the final figure was based on a projection for the current fiscal year which ends June 30.
“I can understand where he’s coming from saying that,” Tester said. “It’s really, for lack of a better way to put it, it almost comes down to semantics.”
Tester recently released its own video ad that goes directly to Grandy ads.
“Joe Grandy’s campaign doesn’t tell the whole story of Washington County’s financial situation,” Tester says in front of a map showing the state with Washington County highlighted in red.
“If you now add what we will owe for the Jonesborough project, we would owe a total of approximately $190 million. That’s a record and a far cry from his tally of 137.”
Tester voted against the new school and said he balked at what was to be a possible loan period of 38 years.
Who is right ? It’s a judgment
Figures in Grandy’s advertisements generally match audit figures. As for quitting the school project costing her claims, Grandy explained it from multiple angles — when and what.
“The schools will be finished in two years and we will start paying those rents, and that certainly has nothing to do with the current four-year period,” Grandy said.
“I have never seen any accounting calculations that talk about future borrowing or future payments of any kind as present debt,” he added.
As for the what, the borrower of record is the town of Jonesborough, although the town does not operate a school system. The county chose this option primarily to avoid the traditional public school funding approach.
Normally, the county would borrow almost as much as needed for its own school and provide the supplement to Johnson City to represent about 48% of the county’s total number of students attending city schools.
As a result, the county agreed to a 28-year lease with Jonesborough (the term of the $42.75 million loan) in which it will pay the city an annual amount equal to the payment of its debt.
When asked if he considered this a county debt, Grandy said no. He said the USDA obligations Jonesborough will incur are the city’s debt and the county is simply paying a rental amount for the use of the building.
“Think of it like someone renting a condo. You pay the rent to the landlord who has a mortgage and it’s as simple as that,” Grandy said. “The debt is not on the person renting the condo, the debt is on the owner.”
That’s not exactly what County Budget Director Mitch Meredith said at the February County Commission meeting, or how the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office (TCO) explained a situation that will see the building will become county property at the end of Jonesborough’s loan period.
“In 2024, we will probably take title to Jonesborough Primary School, which comes with a lease payment, but under accounting rules it will be treated as debt,” Meredith said at that February meeting. “Once that happens…you’ll see an increase that year of up to $52 million.” (The full figure includes certain other obligations associated with the school project.)
TCO Director of Communications John Dunn has confirmed the following statement from a local government auditor from the Comptroller’s Office regarding the county’s tenancy agreement with Jonesborough. Washington County will essentially pay the city each year to offset its payments on the 28-year loan.
“(O) our current understanding is that future lease payments, under the agreed upon financing agreement, will be recognized as a liability (debt) in the county’s financial statements,” the statement read.
Grandy’s announcement is technically correct based on the audit figures used and when payments will start coming due for the school.
But this additional obligation that is coming dates back to his first term and it’s something that Tester says motivated him to respond.
“It’s easy to say, look at what the government has done for you and don’t talk about what it costs,” he said. “Technically it might not be on the books yet because we’re not in school, but it will be in a year or two.”
Advertising touting debt reduction and the new school in virtually the same breath also played into Tester’s decision to wade in with his own publicity.
“It comes out of all our wallets,” he said. “As taxpayers, we all pay property taxes, we are in a time of high inflation and fiscal challenges. We are going to have over 50 million people affected by what we owe in a year or two. whole.
“In the spirit of transparency and open government, which I strongly believe in, I think it’s very important that people know and understand the situation.”
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