Knoxville Knox County City County Building. Photo by Clay Duda.

Knoxville and Knox County Unveil Their (Not Dissimilar) Budget Proposals for 2017

In News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Although Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett have very different political philosophies—one a champion of workers, the environment and redevelopment, the other a champion of cost savings and private investment—aspects of their proposed budgets have been surprisingly similar this year.

Both included no tax increase and focus funds on encouraging business growth and improving roads. And in an unusual twist, both emphasize Zoo Knoxville.

In other aspects, they diverge. Besides creating and retaining jobs, Mayor Rogero’s budget emphasizes living and working “green,” and energizing downtown—both areas in which Knox County has little interest—as well as “strong and safe neighborhoods.”

That last goal covers a lot of ground. To address it, Rogero’s budget would put money toward historic preservation, reducing blight, redevelopment of the Five Points area, funding the Save Our Sons and Change Center initiatives to combat inner-city violence, upgrading parks, extending greenways, and expanding the operating hours of bus and trolley service. Burchett put extra emphasis on public safety, which takes up about 10 percent of his budget.

If these two budgets pass, expect paving companies to be sitting pretty—and even more of those orange cones Rogero calls the city’s unofficial “flower.” Rogero’s budget includes $2.7 million for sidewalks and crosswalks (including, by popular demand, sidewalks in areas so near schools that kids aren’t eligible to ride buses). She also proposed $5.8 million for the city’s paving program, plus $5.6 million more for specific major road improvements and $200,000 for traffic calming measures like speed bumps and roundabouts in neighborhoods. Burchett’s budget, which he unveiled Monday before a marathon of presentations to the public over the following days, calls for $3 million in local funds for paving, $4.4 million for the Schaad Road project, and more than $4 million for safety and capacity improvements at some of the county’s most dangerous roads and intersections.

Sometimes pay raises and social services are viewed as the expendable “bells and whistles,” but the proposed county and city budgets both look favorably upon them.

Burchett’s would cover a 3 percent increase in teacher wages, as well as a “step plus 1 percent” increase for other county employees that will cost about $2.1 million. Rogero’s budget included a 2.5 percent pay increase for employees, plus increases to starting salary levels for jobs in lower pay grades.

Rogero’s budget offers a 72 percent increase in funding for community and social service agencies, with a particular emphasis on groups seeking to support at-risk young black men. However, the city’s investment in nonprofits is in the same ball park as what the county proposes to provide for similar services. Burchett spends less breath on this than Rogero, but to be fair, the county’s bigger budget means the investments are a smaller share of the total.

Incidentally, despite his cultivated stingy reputation, Burchett’s proposed budget generally fulfills most of the requests of departments that handle social services like women’s health, senior centers, veterans’ services, and indigent assistance.

And he spent a significant portion of his presentation to County Commission Monday discussing the need for a Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center to treat those suffering from mental illness and addiction who might otherwise end up in jail. The county set aside $1 million three years ago toward the cost such a facility, but had banked on the state contributing, too. Local leaders were surprised the funding wasn’t included in Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2017 budget. Nonetheless, both mayors are budgeting $200,000 to cover a few months of operating such a center if it should somehow be built this year.

The Big Picture

Burchett’s proposed budget totals $771.2 million, an increase of 2.4 percent over the previous year. The bulk of the budget—and its growth—goes toward the $453.5 cost of operating Knox County schools. (Of the proposed $18 million county budget increase, $15.5 million is for schools.)

Rogero’s proposal would increase the city’s budget by almost the same amount of money, for a total of $407 million.

(Note: If inter-fund transfers and charges aren’t counted, Rogero is actually proposing spending $302.6 million of new spending in the “net budget.”)

Although both local governments are avoiding a tax increase, that’s not because they are bounding ahead financially.

Burchett said that although tax collections are up somewhat, challenges remain: Rising employee health care costs, and the state’s reduction of the Hall Income Tax. (The Legislature voted this spring to eventually sunset this, the only state income tax in Tennessee—triggering an increasing county budget gap).

Burchett acknowledged that he won’t be able to achieve his goal of reducing Knox County’s debt by $100 million by the end of 2017. Instead, he predicted the county will get just halfway to that goal by 2019. But he noted that the trade-off has been the county’s ability to build four new schools, a new senior center, and a forensic center.

In the city, as in the county, good revenue news is balanced by bad. Rogero’s budget is based on the assumption that property tax collections will remain flat and property values won’t grow much except in the commercial sector. However, for the city this is partly offset by growth in other income, particularly payments in lieu of taxes by the Knoxville Utilities Board. These are expected to climb by more than 10 percent due to KUB’s increased property ownership and revenue growth.

In his speech Monday, Burchett credited economic development with enabling the county to responsibly avoid a tax increase, defending himself against accusations that he’s irresponsible for refusing to ever propose one. He touted his successful efforts to move forward with the controversial Midway Business Park in East Knox County.

Burchett says the county attracted more than 2,000 new jobs and upwards of $215 million in capital investment last year, and his budget includes another $1.1 million for economic development agencies.

Rogero’s budget encourages job creation with $400,000 for the Innovation Valley campaign as well as funding for the Chamber Partnership and the city’s Office of Business Support and business liaison.

Both mayors appear to have bought into the idea that Zoo Knoxville is a key economic driver, too. While Rogero didn’t include extra zoo funding in her budget, she held her budget presentation there (complete with a tête-à-tête with Einstein the parrot) and touted the city’s agreed-upon contribution of $10 million over the next five years to fund the zoo’s capital campaign, which will pay for a new tiger exhibit and reptile house.

But the zoo property is owned by the city, which has contributed to its operations for years, unlike the county. Nevertheless, Burchett plans to allocate about $530,000 from hotel/motel tax funds this year to the zoo, says his communications director Michael Grider. And Burchett announced Monday that he will ask County Commission to approve an agreement to supply $5 million for the zoo capital campaign over the next five years.

A county budget hearing will be held Monday at 4 p.m., followed by a public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. City budget hearings will run all day Tuesday, followed by a public hearing at 5 p.m. All will take place in the main assembly room of the City County Building at 400 Main St.

This story was updated to clarify the total amount of new spending proposed as part of Rogero’s city budget.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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