Redefining Knox County's Community Grants Process

When County Mayor Tim Burchett announced he was dispensing with the citizen review panels that had been selecting recipients of community grants from Knox County, I would have expected lots of protest.

During the four years since former Mayor Mike Ragsdale instituted them in 2008, in the name of depoliticizing the selection process, the volunteer panels had been evaluating applications for the grants from as many as 100 not-for-profit organizations. And the panels' recommendations were nearly always followed even as the amount allocated for the grants shrank from $2 million in fiscal 2009 to $521,000 this year, and the number of recipients from more than 60 to about 50.

But Burchett has drawn little criticism for his decision to convert the grants into what are being called Defined Service Contracts and to make the Knox County Purchasing Division responsible for evaluating proposals and making recommendations to the mayor for funding. Burchett's explanation for the change doesn't ring entirely true when he asserts that, "It seems like in the past a lot of these deals were cut behind closed doors, and I'm big on transparency and trying to keep it on the up and up." In fact, the citizen review panels did their evaluations and made their recommendations—at least ostensibly—in public meetings whereas the Purchasing Division will do its work behind closed doors.

But Burchett's most frequent critic on County Commission, Amy Broyles, supports his decision all the same. "It was far too easy to stack the panels if you were involved with an organization [seeking a grant]," she says. And former panel member and recent City Council candidate John Stancil believes the selections were tilted in favor of an applicant's presentation skills to the disadvantage of "organizations that didn't have the wherewithal to put on a show. I would hope for a more objective look, not just who makes the best presentation," Stancil says.

Both Broyles and Stancil believe that Director of Purchasing Hugh Holt and the county's other department head most involved, Director of Community Development Grant Rosenberg, will bring more professionalism to the evaluation and selection process. Burchett also stresses that the new approach of awarding service contracts "provides a certain level of accountability I don't think we had in the past. In the past we just handed over taxpayer money. Now we're putting them on a pay-as-you-go basis, and they have to do reports and follow through with their contract."

The mayor anticipates that funding in the fiscal year ahead will approximate the level of community grants in the current fiscal year with selections and awards in seven categories: health, economic development, human services, education, emergency and safety, children's services, and tourism/arts and culture.

The good news underlying all of this is that Burchett remains committed to providing support to organizations in these fields (albeit much reduced from pre-recession levels) after having been quoted in the past saying, "I don't think it's the role of government to fund non-profits." That's been amended to allow for funding of "agencies and programs that are essential services to the community."

Plainly, organizations such as Volunteer Ministry Center, Child & Family Tennessee, Emerald Youth Foundation, and Second Harvest Food Bank meet that standard. And I for one am grateful that Burchett has concluded that arts and culture organizations that have long received both city and county support do as well. "I'd say it's an investment in infrastructure. We've got a cultural infrastructure, if you will, and I think it adds to the vibrance of our community," he says.

The Arts and Culture Alliance, under the leadership of Liza Zenni, has pulled together a collaboration of 24 organizations that are applying jointly for $320,000 in county funding. These range from the largest—the symphony, the opera, and the Knoxville Museum of Art—to small groups such as the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble and the Tennessee Stage Company, and also encompass the community's cultural heritage attractions: Blount Mansion, James White Fort, Mabry-Hazen House, and Ramsey House.

The $320,000 requested represents an increase from the $200,000 they received this year. But their funding is facilitated by the fact that the money can be drawn Hotel-Motel Tax receipts whereas other categories must draw upon the county's general fund.

By law, 10 percent of the proceeds from the county's 5 percent Hotel-Motel Tax must go for "tourism-related activities." That's $520,000 of the $5,200,000 in budgeted proceeds from the tax this year for which cultural heritage venues and the arts are deemed to qualify. However, the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation has contractually claimed half of this allocation (or $260,000) atop the $2,080,000 that KTSC also gets as the sole recipient of the 40 percent of the total take that state law stipulates must be spent for "the direct promotion of tourism."

Burchett is on record that he's going to seek revisions in the KTSC's contract, which was negotiated by its much maligned ex-president, Gloria Ray. And reallocation of its funding in excess of the stipulated 40 percent is one of the changes he has in mind.

No eligible category of recipients of these reallocated funds is more worthy of public support than arts and culture. So I would hope that the county officials responsible for awarding them will look favorably on Zenni's requests, which represents little more than half of what the 24 organizations she represents received from the county five years ago.