Ragsdale's Budget: Back to Basics

Ragsdale also did better by

Knox

County

schools than heretofore. In addition to the roughly $4.5 million in annual growth from dedicated property and sales taxes that's all the increase (on a $312 million operating budget) that the school system got directly from the county this past year, Ragsdale is recommending that the county fund $15 million in school plant improvements over the next three years. That's on top of an established $120 million school construction budget over the next five years that will cover the cost of five new schools and additions/renovations at several others. (An additional $40 million for the new high school is being funded differently by dint of

County

Commission

's action last year.)

Beyond that, the new budget includes $2.5 million for the Great Schools initiative that Ragsdale launched a year ago with great fanfare. That's less than the $6.8 million originally earmarked for year two of a program aimed primarily at strengthening preparedness of at-risk kids in inner city schools. But the program's start was delayed for many months by wrangling with the school board over the way Ragsdale wanted its funding routed through a separate foundation to ensure the money went for his intended purposes. Now, the foundation has been harmoniously established with Ragsdale and school board Chairman Dan Murphy as the co-chairs of its board. At the board's April meeting, the county mayor was quick to move approval of a four-year budget that calls for increasing Great Schools funding to $8.3 million in fiscal 2007 and $16.6 million by

 

In his state of the community address a year ago, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale heralded a bold set of initiatives that centered on downtown Knoxville.

His budget included $40 million for a new downtown library that he said was needed both "to replace our current undersized facility" and also "to make the community proud." He also envisioned a new children's Discovery Center as an anchor for a potential mixed-use development on the air rights that the county holds atop the city's planned new transit center on State Street. And then there was a $1 million grant to the Beck Cultural Center for new facilities in the erstwhile visitors center on the downtown waterfront.

But the $40 million cost of the library seemed to make more people mad than proud, especially when it got linked to the $30 increase in the county's wheel tax that Ragsdale recommended. Indeed, as a petition drive for a referendum to rescind the wheel tax gained momentum, it began to appear that instead of being a monument to the Ragsdale administration, the library plan could become a tombstone. County Commission took the lead away from the county mayor by reallocating the $40 million to construction of a new West Knox high school to relieve present and prospective school overcrowding in that area of

With some adroit maneuvering on Ragsdale's part, both he and his tax increase managed to weather the storm. But in this year's state of the community address last week the county mayor seemed intent on keeping the waters calm.

There was no mention of downtown library needs, nor of a new Discovery Center or any other development on the State Street site. No cognizance was given to another pressing downtown cultural funding need: the $2 million that the East Tennessee Historical Society is attempting to raise for museum exhibitry to grace the wonderful new East Tennessee History Center edifice that the county recently built at a cost of $18 million. And needless to say, there were no new taxes.

Ragsdale led off his speech by proclaiming, "There's a collective desire for progress that extends throughout this county. A spirit of cooperation that goes from Gibbs to Hardin Valley and from Heiskell to Seymour " However inclusive he may have meant it to be, his phrasing evoked connotations from the past of the city as a hole in the county's doughnut. And about the only budgetary initiative cited within the hole is a $250,000 contribution toward a skateboard park on which the city and the county are collaborating at a central location that's yet to be determined.

All of this is not to say that Ragsdale's budget doesn't have a lot of merits. Industrial recruitment, law enforcement, roads and senior citizen services are all well supported. There's a $3.5 million new commitment to create what will be Knox County's largest recreational park on Rifle Range Road in North Knox. And the InterFaith Health Clinic got a big boost in its county funding.

Ragsdale also did better by Knox County schools than heretofore. In addition to the roughly $4.5 million in annual growth from dedicated property and sales taxes that's all the increase (on a $312 million operating budget) that the school system got directly from the county this past year, Ragsdale is recommending that the county fund $15 million in school plant improvements over the next three years. That's on top of an established $120 million school construction budget over the next five years that will cover the cost of five new schools and additions/renovations at several others. (An additional $40 million for the new high school is being funded differently by dint of County Commission's action last year.)

Beyond that, the new budget includes $2.5 million for the Great Schools initiative that Ragsdale launched a year ago with great fanfare. That's less than the $6.8 million originally earmarked for year two of a program aimed primarily at strengthening preparedness of at-risk kids in inner city schools. But the program's start was delayed for many months by wrangling with the school board over the way Ragsdale wanted its funding routed through a separate foundation to ensure the money went for his intended purposes. Now, the foundation has been harmoniously established with Ragsdale and school board Chairman Dan Murphy as the co-chairs of its board. At the board's April meeting, the county mayor was quick to move approval of a four-year budget that calls for increasing Great Schools funding to $8.3 million in fiscal 2007 and $16.6 million by

Ragsdale also remains a proponent of getting Knoxville a Discovery Center that matches up to counterparts in most comparable-sized cities. But he believes the Discovery Center's not-for-profit board, which he once chaired, needs to take the lead. "He points to the Tennessee Theatre as a model where the private sector led the way and demonstrated financial viability, and then the public sector supported it," says Ragsdale spokesman Dwight Van de Vate. The Discovery Center board has been working for the past year with a California-based consultant on plans for a $20 million new facility, but it doesn't believe the State Street site is suitable and hasn't been able to settle on another one.

With his library/wheel tax imbroglio of a year ago seemingly behind him, Ragsdale looks like a shoo-in for reelection next year. When it comes to resurrecting plans for a new downtown library in his second term, Van de Vate says, "If we sense there's widespread support [for it], then it's something we'll have to consider." 

—Joe Sullivan

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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