Mayor Burchett's Loose Ways

His shoot-from-the-hip style may leave him vulnerable with voters

With a new Carter Elementary now assured, County Mayor Tim Burchett deserves cheers, but only in the sense that you clap for stragglers in a charity 5k run who were just trying to prove they could finish. To get the school, Burchett expended a lot of political capital and left himself vulnerable to a 2014 challenger. A well-known Republican—County Commission chairman Mike Hammond, for example—could exploit Burchett's weaknesses and upset the incumbent.

Many communities have schools in need of repair and renovation but have not gotten the attention Burchett gave to Carter. A challenger could mobilize them into a sizable base of support.

Burchett made additional enemies with this year's budget. He made good on a campaign promise to rein in the Development Corporation, but only by trimming their yearly contribution from $700,000 to $600,000. For an organization with $12 million in cash assets and $24 million in land holdings, the cut was minor compared to hits taken by organizations like Ijams Nature Center and Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Seniors, a major voting bloc, saw Burchett eliminate their ability to ride KAT buses for free.

Even county residents without a stake in those battles should be concerned by Burchett's methods. As mayor, he has no independent spending authority. He is supposed to carry out the budgeting decisions of the school board and Commission.

The responsible way to fund new construction at Carter would have been to draw from the surplus in the county's general fund while pledging to find ways to replace the money. If a year's efforts failed to meet the goal, he could reconcile the difference in next year's budget.

Instead, Burchett put his faith in the market to come up with a lower price for the new school. That failed, so he started liquidating assets and asserting control over the proceeds. He decided to sell off the county's mulching and composting facility in Solway. At auction, it yielded less than half of what the county had invested in it.

You can hardly blame him for wanting to ditch a mulch yard, but if you look up compost producers in the Yellow Pages, you'll find that Knox County is the only local entity with a permit for processing biosolids and animal waste. The county also has an obligation under state law to reduce the amount of solid waste it sends to landfills.

For former solid waste director John Evans, now deceased, that obligation became a personal mission. Starting around 1997, Evans worked to get the county into the green-waste recycling business, educating himself in the techniques and securing funds to purchase and develop the Solway facility.

The first operator terminated their contract prematurely because the facility was too small to meet demand, particularly with Evans aiming to add composting to the repertoire. A grant intended for expansion was instead used to repair a detention pond under which a sinkhole had opened.

The second operator, Natural Resources Recovery of Tennessee, was persistently in trouble with TDEC for their management of the site, but Mayor Mike Ragsdale had no interest in funding the needed expansion. Evans ended up waiving a revenue-sharing agreement with NRRT, though he had no authority to do so. A private citizen discovered this and had filed a lawsuit just months before Evans died. The facility and the contract to manage it became a growing headache for the county.

In reviewing the saga for the county, attorney Pam Reeves found that Evans acted outside protocol several times. While she found Evans' dedication to his recycling goals admirable, she wrote, "County employees are public servants, not private business people who can make decisions based on their personal wishes or desires. [They] do not have the luxury of doing things to suit themselves or their personal agendas."

Those criticisms apply just as well to Mayor Burchett. If he continues his loose ways, a candidate who pledges to improve schools throughout the county without selling off assets at a loss just might win the voters' favor.