Knox commissioners not sure if teacher raises are their responsibility

The Knox County Commission on Monday spent little time talking about the proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, but a number of board members swore they would not automatically rubber stamp the budget for the mayor, either.

Instead, officials said they would consider trying to find ways to possibly add some money to cover school funding that the state reduced by almost $3 million last week, and another $4.5 million for teacher raises that Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett declined to include in the budget.

More: Knox Co. school budget takes $3M hit after state funding reduced

However, they also said they were prepared to ask members on the Knox County Board of Education just what they would cut in their own budgets if needed.

"We were elected from our districts to legislate," said Commissioner Sam McKenzie, adding that the budget is now under the commission's purview to analyze. "We need to look at this budget process and see what advances Knox County.

"But the commission will also ask (the school board) tough questions. Why can't you cut $3 million," McKenzie said.

The commission on Monday talked briefly about the proposed budget during its work session. Afterward, it held a public forum, but only three people, almost all teachers and members of the Knox County Education Association, spoke.

Each asked commissioners to consider adding more money to the budget to cover teacher raises.

"Step up, speak up, own up and more importantly raise up to help us as Knox County schools to be great," said Tanya Coats, president of KCEA.

Kim Waller, a 20-year teacher, agreed.

She said the county is losing quality teachers to other nearby school systems because the pay isn't comparable. She said a small property tax increase could fix that.

"Bragging that we haven't had a property tax increase in 14 years equates to bragging about mediocrity," Waller said.

A number of commissioners supported the trio, however, some weren't so sure the requests should fall on the commission.

"As for teachers, I think they've done a great job but that's not our decision, that's up to the school board as to who gets what," said Commission Vice Chairman R. Larry Smith, adding that despite no property tax increases, funding for the school system has jumped each year.

The commission will hold a joint work session with the Board of Education at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ijam's Nature Center to talk more about the budget.

The commission will vote on the overall plan on May 27.

At issue is the county's spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Previous: Knox Co. mayor unveils 'no frills' spending plan

Mayor Burchett initially proposed an almost $730 million spending plan with $427.8 million dedicated to the school system.
School leaders had asked him to also include another $4.5 million to cover a 1.8 percent raise for teachers. Burchett opted not to pay for it, saying he would sign off only on a revenue-neutral budget.

Then last week, officials learned that schools will get almost $3 million less than expected in state Basic Education Program funding because the formula that determines the amount of money each county received changed.

That led Burchett to revise his budget, dropping school funding to $424.9 million.

His new overall proposal now stands at $727 million.

Burchett said he's against increasing it further, a move he says would require dipping into the county's reserve tank.

"We cannot start down the road for using one-time money for ongoing expenses," Burchett said Monday. "That's something we stress and that's what our bond rating (agencies) tell us. If we start down that road . . . you'll see our bond ratings change and it will cost us millions."

Burchett earlier this month released his proposed budget, which didn't increase taxes, dip into the reserves, lay off employees or cut services.

It includes a $164.3 million general fund, which covers much of the county's day-to-day operations and the Knox County Sheriff's Office.

The general fund jumped slightly compared to the current one by $2.7 million, including about an extra $1 million for law enforcement. Overall, the Sheriff's Office will get $77.5 million.

Burchett also proposed a $31.2 million capital improvement plan with about half of it set aside for schools; $13.8 million for highway and street-related initiatives that will include Phase II of Ball Camp Drive; $775,000 to relocate the Carter Convenience Center; $2.5 million for "dangerous" intersection improvements; $1.1 million for 30 Sheriff's Office vehicles; $700,000 in Sheriff's Office security upgrades; $1 million for engineering and public works vehicles; $350,000 for an HVAC system at the animal center; and $250,000 for the Information Technology Department.

The county, through its general fund and hotel-motel tax revenues, also will set aside more than $1.9 million for local organizations. For example, the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Greater Knoxville will get $375,000. The Salvation Army, Keep Knoxville Beautiful, the Sertoma Center, Beck Cultural Center, Friends of Literacy and dozens of other non-profit operations also will get a cut.

Further, the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership will receive $80,000, Innovation Valley will get $250,000 and the Development Corp also will get $600,000 – all to help with economic development.


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