franktalk (2008-09)

What Now?

Frank Talk

Commission an unknown quantity facing real challenges

by Frank Cagle

The biggest faction on Knox County Commission now is the non-faction faction. After months of the faction dedicated to eviscerating County Mayor Mike Ragsdale versus the Commissioners sympathetic to the mayorâ’s position, the template has been shattered.

The once Ragsdale allies are no longer allies, they are holding Ragsdale at arms length. The anti-Ragsdales have been reduced in number, power, and influence. The influx of independent caretakers following an election tsunami has changed the dynamic on Commission. So what can we expect going forward?

Ragsdale, plagued by audits, staff resignations, wayward grants, and questionable travel allowances, has, oddly, benefited from his enemiesâ’ rancor. The tone-deafness of his critics when it came to public perception allowed him to hold a group of allies together. Those who thought they should pick a side found reasons not to side with the anti-Ragsdale faction.

Ragsdale certainly benefits from the defeat of Scott Moore and potential Moore allies Richard Cate and Lee Tramel. But, ironically enough, he also loses. When the audits come down, if they are as bad as predicted, the new County Commission will move to deal with them. Ragsdale will no longer be able to characterize his critics as vengeful political enemies exercising payback. The new members of Commission have no baggage from the bitter warfare between Ragsdale and former Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Should they move to investigate corruption or pursue repayment of misspent monies, the onus will be on Ragsdaleâ"the â“theyâ’re out to get meâ” defense no longer plays.

The media and public-attention focus has been on Black Wednesday, Sunshine lawsuits, and the election. Now the focus moves to Ragsdale and his problemsâ"assuming Ragsdaleâ’s frequent critics who are left on Commission have the sense to shut up.

No one has any idea how the current mix of Commissioners will rule. It will be some time before we have a clear picture of the philosophical outlook of the body as a whole. I think it is safe to say they will be less developer-friendly. This is not good news for home builders already being slammed by a credit crunch, recession worries, and balloon payments due on expensive West Knox County land. It may be that an anti-development attitude wonâ’t matter, given there may not be much development in the coming months.

The new Commission will soon have to face the budget for the coming year. It is an open secret around the courthouse that the smoke and mirrors budget last year, the shortfall covered by the fund balance and borrowed money, is coming due this year. Commission may be faced with the largest tax increase in Knox County history, or cutting budgets to the bone, or both. It may be that those who lost recent Commission races will discover over time they were really the winners.

The steady stream of tax revenue from ever increasing property values in West Knox County may come to a screeching halt. If property values have declined, people will start to challenge assessments. If their mortgage company tells them they owe more than their property is worth, then how can the property assessor not agree?

The Perfect Storm then is declining property values, a slow-down in housing construction, deficits occurring in the current year budget that have to be covered, and the highest debt burden in Knox County history. Remember also that, by law, the education budget cannot be decreased from the previous year.

Given the questions raised by the grants to cronies and family of Cynthia Finch, it may be that grants to non-profits around Knoxville may be the first place budget-cutters look. The libraries and senior citizen centers Ragsdale has built to curry favor all over the county have to be staffed and maintained. The library budget is already exhausted.

Itâ’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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