County Commission: The Buck Stops Somewhere

A new era in county government? Not yet.

If there was a consistent message in County Commission's assorted actions and inactions at its meeting Monday, it was this: That's not our job.

In passing Mayor Mike Ragsdale's $647.1 million budget for 2010-11, commissioners declined a request from the Knox County school board to somehow find about $1.4 million to stave off teacher layoffs. Instead, they suggested the board look for savings to that favorite of Commission talking points, "Central Office bloat." Meanwhile, on the other major agenda item of the evening—a proposed business park on Midway Road—Commission decided not to decide anything at all.

"I just think we ought to allow the next leadership of this county to make that decision," Commission Vice Chairman Craig Leuthold said, in supporting Commissioner Dave Wright's motion to defer action on a revamped East County Sector Plan for 120 days. That will put the matter before the next county mayor and a new, slimmed-down Commission.

Wright's motion, which passed 11-6, was at least a short-term victory for residents of the Thorn Grove community and surrounding areas, who have been fighting the business park plan for four years. But there was also an unmistakable air of lame-duck buck-passing about it.

Actually voting against the Sector Plan, or sending it back to the Metropolitan Planning Commission with a request to remove the business park, would have meant explicitly rejecting one of the top priorities of The Development Corporation of Knox County. On the other hand, voting to approve it would have incurred the anger of the residents who had packed the Main Assembly Room in the City County Building. It's not hard to see why deferral was a more attractive option. Even some commissioners who had seemed to be leaning toward approving the business park, like Brad Anders of the 6th District, gladly hopped aboard Wright's lifeboat.

On school funding, the back-and-forth between commissioners and Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre had a ritualistic familiarity. The division of labors between Commission and the school board sets up an inevitable tension, especially in tight budget years. Commission sets the total budget, and the school board decides how to spend it. When there's not enough money to go around, the school system tends to ask for more, and Commission tends to lecture the school system on how to control its expenses.

Above all, commissioners love to pick at Central Office—particularly commissioners who happen to be teachers, like the 3rd District's Tony Norman. "You have 51 people budgeted at $90,000-plus," Norman said to McIntyre, reading off a list of Central Office salaries. McIntyre made the usual defenses, that studies show Knox County's Central Office salaries "are at average or below average" for systems its size, and that the Central Office budget has been cut by a far greater percentage than the instructional budget (spending reductions of 4 to 9 percent in Central Office functions, versus about 1.5 percent in classrooms).

But the exchanges seemed unlikely to change anybody's minds. Commissioner Mike Brown, after reading off still more Central Office salary figures, told McIntyre that the school board and Commission need to be better about working together to set priorities.

"There seems to be kind of a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line," Brown said.

But to anyone with previous exposure to the roundelay of responsibility that is the Knox County budget process, everything seemed to be working pretty much as usual.