Knox County Budget Battle

Tim Burchett's proposed cuts have some people asking if county finances are really as grim as he says

When Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett presented his proposed 2011-12 budget earlier this month, he struck a stern and ominous tone. There would be layoffs, a hiring freeze, funding cuts, no raises for county employees, and no money drawn from reserves for "non-emergency spending."

Burchett's total budget of $653 million would be a nearly $6 million increase over the current year. But actual spending in the General Fund—the part of the budget that isn't schools, debt, or special revenue streams like the Wheel Tax and Hotel/Motel Tax—would drop by a little over $2 million, to around $149 million.

That's in line with Burchett's insistence during his mayoral campaign last year that his first order of business would be to curb what he saw as excesses during the administration of his predecessor, Mike Ragsdale. And like Ragsdale, he has refused to even talk about the possibility of a property tax increase.

"I ran on being a fiscal conservative," Burchett says, "and that's what I'm going to be. Government's become this, it's like it's Christmas. Somebody's going to have to pay the bills. And we all know who's going to get hit with the bills: It's going to be the working people. They're out of work, they're losing their homes in record amounts, people are struggling everywhere. So I think it's time we get realistic about it."

But as the ramifications of Burchett's realism have become clear over the last few weeks, some people have started to ask whether he's exaggerating the county's dire straits—whether things are really quite as bad as his budget makes them out to be, and whether the social costs of his proposed cuts are really worth their bottom-line gains.

"We're being sold a fiscal crisis that does not exist," says 2nd District County Commissioner Amy Broyles, who has become Commission's most outspoken critic of Burchett's plan. Broyles says that Burchett's picture of a county in danger of being consumed by its debt is overblown. Most of the debt was incurred for capital projects and is being paid back on predetermined schedules.

"This isn't debt that we're going to leave for grandchildren to deal with," Broyles says. "This debt is going to be paid off in 20 years."

Furthermore, she says, by the time Burchett came into office last fall, Commission and Ragsdale had already done significant belt-tightening in the face of the recession. The General Fund budget in the current year is about $151 million, down from $159 million three years earlier.

"We've been very conservative, we've made deep cuts, and the county right now is in fabulous shape," Broyles says. "There's no reason for people to lose their jobs, and there's no reason for county employees not to get a modest raise."

Burchett marked 31 positions for elimination—mostly through not filling open slots, but a half-dozen or so county employees are slated to be fired at the end of June. Among the other cuts that have raised eyebrows and hackles in Burchett's budget:

— A 92 percent cut in county funding for the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in East Knoxville, from $150,000 this year to $12,000 next year. Several commissioners, including Sam McKenzie, who represents the district, and Commission Chairman Mike Hammond, have vowed to find some way to keep the African-American history and cultural center funded.

— The Seniors FREEdom program, started under Ragsdale, which provided $70,000 a year so anyone 65 or older could ride Knoxville Area Transit buses for free. Burchett has proposed just $25,000 in funding, which KAT says will effectively end the program in October.

— The elimination of funding for the Legacy Parks Foundation, which for the past six years has received $50,000 a year from the county, along with $50,000 from the city. At a budget hearing Monday, county Parks and Recreation Director Doug Bataille told commissioners that over that time, the Foundation has leveraged the money into $2.5 million worth of land and donations for preserving and expanding urban greenspace.

— The recycling education program at Ijams Nature Center, which would be terminated at year three of what was originally a five-year contract. Paul James, Ijams' executive director, says the $98,000 cut would end the program, which educates everyone from schoolchildren to business owners about ways to reduce their waste streams. James says there was some initial discussion that the money would be phased out, with maybe $50,000 next year and $25,000 the year after, but the total elimination was a surprise. "If funding is going to be cut," he told commissioners, "at least give us more time to plan and deal with those changes."

Burchett says he knows these kinds of cuts might not be popular. But, he says flatly, if commissioners want to restore any of them, they should be prepared to sacrifice elsewhere. "Every $40,000 they put back in, show me which employee they want me to lay off," he says. "That's where we're at in this budget. There's no pots of money."

That, of course, depends on how much money you think the county has to spend. Broyles says she thinks Burchett is being overly cautious in his projections of sales and property tax revenues, which the proposed budget suggest will increase by less than 2 percent. "Revenues have been going up for the past 13 months, according to the state," Broyles says.

There's also the matter of the county's reserves, which Broyles says is "the second-highest fund balance in Knox County history." That money, popularly referred to as a "rainy day fund," is set aside against unexpected expenditures—like the clean-up from the recent hail storms. But Broyles and some other commissioners say there's excess money in the current reserve, projected at around $37 million. Commissioner Mike Brown said at Monday's meeting that he believes the county could spend $4 million of that and "still be safe."

Broyles says she wants to find a way to avoid Burchett's biggest cuts and also provide a 3 percent pay raise to county employees, who have had no raise for the past three years even as their health insurance costs have risen. She believes that is possible with no tax increase this year, although she and some other commissioners seem open to considering a property tax hike next year. (The county has not raised property taxes since 1999.)

The budget is now in the hands of County Commission, which is scheduled to vote on it at a special meeting on June 13. Broyles says she thinks a majority of her colleagues will resist Burchett's hard line, which she sees as more ideological than logical.

"I want to be supportive, and I want him to grow into his job," she says of the new mayor. "But I can't let him destroy people's lives while he does it."