The morning before Tuesday's special called County Commission meeting for the budget vote, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett told the Farragut Chamber of Commerce, "My job's not to be Santa Claus and sprinkle taxpayer money around to non-profits." He was repeating what he had told the News Sentinel the previous day—"[I]t's not our job to be Santa Claus and to run for reelection by giving taxpayers' money away."
Well, Virginia, lest you were confused, there is no Santa Claus. But the Grinch? He's real.
Despite weeks of debate and controversy, despite a three-hour discussion with a number of proposed amendments, the County Commission passed the mayor's budget virtually untouched. There were no pay raises, no added funds for the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, and no more free bus rides for seniors. The only changes to Burchett's budget were a restoration of the commissioners' $300-per-month travel funds and a withholding of $14,000 allotted to the East Tennessee Development District until that organization sends the county a more detailed account of its activities. The $149 million operating budget passed by a vote of 9-2, with only Commission's two Democrats—Sam McKenzie and Amy Broyles—dissenting.
The mayor spent much of the meeting with facial expressions that ranged from tense to annoyed to visibly angry, but at the end of the long afternoon, he was all smiles. "The Commission made tough choices but clearly sided with the taxpayers," Burchett said.
Burchett also got his way on what some have called a pet project in the county's five-year capital improvement plan—a $2.8 million extension of Outlet Drive, between Lovell and Campbell Station roads just on the other side of the interstate from Turkey Creek. McKenzie made a motion to omit the funds that would extend the road from where it ends off Lovell Road to Snyder Road. Commission Chairman Mike Hammond, after mentioning his fondness for line-dancing mecca Cotton-Eyed Joe, which is on Outlet Drive, said the cost of building the road would be negligible compared to the tax revenues any development on that parcel would generate. "I believe this will become Turkey Creek Junior," Hammond said. Only Broyles and McKenzie voted in favor of omitting the funds.
While approving that $2.8 million project, Commission turned down a $2.7 million proposal to give the first raises in four years to county employees. Broyles proposed taking the funds either from county debt payments or its estimated $36 million general reserves. (Instead of a percentage-based raise, all employees would be bumped up one pay scale.) The suggestion to take the cash from debt funds led to a heated exchange with Burchett and Finance Director John Troyer. Broyles suggested the county was paying its debt down more aggressively than necessary.
Comparing it to paying extra on a mortgage, Broyles commented. "It's a worthy goal to pay down more of the principal, but my husband and I would never let our children go barefoot just to pay more of the principal."
Broyles said she had talked to the county's bond adviser, Joe Ayres of Morgan Keegan, who told her that neither taking money away from the scheduled debt payments nor taking money out of the rainy day fund in order to give county employees a raise would affect the county's bond rating.
But Troyer and Burchett said nearly all the proposed debt payments are mandatory, and that Ayres had reacted "positively" to their plan. (Ayres himself, probably preferring to keep his name out of political infighting, sent a text message to Hammond during the meeting saying that he had answered some general questions for Broyles but that most of these issues were policy matters.)
Broyles' pay-raise proposals were greeted with loud applause, mostly from the 30-plus uniformed officers of the Sheriff's Department present. One officer spoke in the public comment period and asked why teachers in Knox County Schools and police working for the city of Knoxville had no issues getting budgeted raises: "Are we valued or are we not?" he asked. "'Cause your vote's gonna tell us how you feel about that here in a minute."
Still, Commissioners Jeff Ownby, Richard Briggs, Brad Anders, Larry Smith, Dave Wright, Ed Shouse, and Hammond voted against the amendment for a pay raise.
Anders said he voted against the raises solely because the money came from the rainy day funds, which he says should just be used for one-time, not recurring, expenses. "I hope revenues next year are increased, and we can revisit [the raises] three or four months into the budget year," Anders said after the meeting. "If we can find the money in the budget, even if just it's a bonus, then we need to do something for the employees. It was a hard vote for me."
Broyles said afterward she was disappointed for the employees, but she is willing to go along with Anders to try to find the money for raises later in the year. "I'm willing to look at anything," she said. "That's kind of the hallmark of this whole process."
The "let's revisit this later" concept got applied to a number of other things, too—the elimination of KAT bus fares for seniors, cuts in funding to various non-profits, the eradication of the commission's $3,000-per-commissioner discretionary spending.
By the end of the afternoon, the things that seemed the least likely to come back up were two of the most controversial: the restoration of $138,000 to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, and the $8,000 allocated to the Hope Resource Center. McKenzie offered an amendment early on to restore Beck's funds, provided the center's pending audit came back clean, but Broyles was the only taker.
Near the end of the day, Broyles proposed withholding the HRC's money—the Christian pregnancy resource center is aggressively evangelical, tracking its clients by numbers preached to and converted, and last month, the issue had been raised whether funding it could be seen as a violation of church-state separation.
A testy Burchett told Broyles the funds were not for pregnancy testing but for Hepatitis B and C testing, which the county health department does not provide. When his statement was questioned, Martha Buchanan, the director of the health department, confirmed for the Commission that KCHD indeed does not offer testing for Hepatitis B or C, or for herpes.
Overall, the budget was a clear victory for Burchett, who held steadfast to his bare-bones proposal through weeks of questioning and second-guessing. As Smith explained, in defending the plan, Burchett's walloping vote totals last year gave him a strong mandate. "Elections," Smith said, "have consequences."