Analyzing This Year's Ballot Amendments for the Knoxville and Knox County Charters

Is there such a thing as ballot fatigue? Is our collective attention as voters really so short that we can't make it past the big presidential election up top, so we just walk out of the booth leaving the rest of the ballot unfinished, unvoted on?

This, at least, was a theory espoused by local radio talk show host Hubert Smith in an article in the News Sentinel last week. "If people are unaware that the pension referendum is last on the ballot, they may just go through three or four county initiatives, say ‘aw, to (heck) with it,' and skip the pension vote," Smith told the paper.

The article posits that this, perhaps, is part of the reason Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has been pushing so hard these past few weeks promoting the charter amendment she helped usher through City Council this summer. The ballot measure allows voters to choose whether all new city employees should participate in a new, hybrid pension plan than includes defined contributions from employees.

The amendment is also the very last thing on the November ballot, following seven wordy proposed amendments to the Knox County charter. And although we are slightly skeptical that ballot fatigue is a real thing, we want to encourage you to push through to that very final page on the touchscreen, whatever your thoughts on pension reform. Like your choice of president, your potential to amend the city and county charters will have real and lasting effects, which is why we are here to explain everything for you.

Knoxville City Charter Amendment

If you live outside of city borders, you won't see this on your ballot, so feel free to skip this section. But if you live inside the city, you only have this one extra amendment to vote on, and we believe in you. You've got the strength to power through.

What this amendment asks, in essence, is whether the city should close its current pension plan to new employees and instead start a brand-new "hybrid" plan for all people hired after Jan. 1, 2013. Employees already on the existing plan—and former employees already receiving their pensions—won't see any benefits change should this amendment pass. Only future hires will be affected.

Here's what will be different with the new plan: Employees will have to work for the city for 10 years instead of five years to become vested. The retirement age will increase to 63 instead of 62 (56 instead of 50 for police and fire department employees with 25 years of service). Total employee contributions will remain at 6 percent.

But the biggest change is that the total employee defined benefit will drop to 2 percent times years of service based on the highest five years of pay, down from 2.1 percent based on the highest two years of pay (down from 2.5 for police and fire) and is capped at a salary of $40,000. Above that there is an 8 percent city contribution (10 percent for police and fire) applied to all pay, which will pay out above the defined benefit depending on the market.

Rogero says in an e-mail that switching to a hybrid plan "will save millions of dollars over the coming years by closing our current, unsustainable pension plans." The city's current pension plan was underfunded by $218 million as of July, and the city's annual contribution to the plan, currently $14.4 million, is estimated to reach over $30 million in the next eight years.

"This pension reform will reduce costs and market risk for city taxpayers, while allowing us to continue to recruit and retain top-quality employees," Rogero says. "I urge all Knoxville voters to make sure they scroll all the way to the end of the ballot and support the City Charter Amendment."

Not all of the City Council was in favor of the hybrid plan when the body voted to put the measure on the ballot this summer. Councilmembers Duane Grieve, Nick Della Volpe, and Marshall Stair voted against it, expressing a preference for a complete defined-contribution plan, not unlike a 401(k). However, even Stair says the hybrid plan "is a step in the right direction."

"I'm for closing the old plan because it's risky, unsustainable, and expensive," Stair says. "If you're for a more sustainable plan, it's hard to argue against the amendment."

Knox County Charter Amendments

The city doesn't get all the fun with pensions, however. Although there are seven proposed amendments to the Knox County charter, it's the one at the top of the list, Question 1, that is generating the most controversy.

Back in 2006, voters approved a pension plan for the sheriff's office, aka the Uniformed Officers Plan. In the five years since the plan has gone into effect, the county's liability has grown by $42 million. According to Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, the plan's liability currently is $146 million but the county's assets to pay out the pensions are around $112 million.

"It's $33.6 million unfunded," Burchett says. "And of course the numbers are going to continue to increase. … It will consume any available resource."

Unlike the city's amendment, Question 1 does not provide for a new retirement plan to replace the Uniformed Officers Plan. What it would do, if passed, is set an end date for entry into the pension plan—Dec. 31, 2013—and afford the county one year to create an alternative plan to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. All officers on the current plan will remain on the plan, provided they maintain continuous employment with the county.

Burchett says that because any new plan will have to be approved by the Pension Board and then County Commission, representatives from the sheriff's office will have plenty of chances to make their voices heard as the process moves forward. But a majority of voters will need to vote "yes" on the measure first.

Questions 2 and 3 on the ballot have to do with term limits. Question 2 clarifies that a partial term of an elected official does not count towards a person's two-term limit as an elected official and that term limits do not apply to someone running for a different office—i.e., a term-limited commissioner could then run for mayor or some other county office. Question 3 clarifies that term limits do apply to all Commission seats simultaneously—that is, a term-limited commissioner in District 2 could not then run again as a commissioner for an at-large seat.

Charter amendment Questions 4, 5, and 6 regard the Board of Education. Question 4 would remove any connection between the time designated for school board elections and that of the county assessor of property. (Because that was apparently a thing for some reason?) Question 5 ensures that any redistricting of the school board must be approved by a two-thirds vote of Commission. And Question 6 makes it explicit that Commission has the last word when it comes to redistricting seats on the Board of Education.

Question 7 on the ballot shows what weird depths lurk in the recesses of the charter. If approved, it would remove the obligation from the county clerk to annually write members of our state and national legislative delegation "stating the people's support of term limits at both the state and federal levels."

The charter amendments are indeed wordy—we certainly didn't have the space to reproduce them here in full—so it's not a bad idea to check out the sample ballot on the Knox County Election Commission's website before heading to the booth to vote. And fatigued or not, in favor of pension reform or opposed, it really won't take you that much longer to check "yes" or "no" in those seven or eight little boxes.