Taking Care of Basics
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ first budget sticks with a proven template, but adds (and subtracts) a few flourishes.
by jesse fox mayshark • may 2, 2019
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs speaks with reporters after his budget address on wednesday at central high school.
The major differences between Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ first budget presentation Wednesday morning and the eight that preceded him under former Mayor Tim Burchett were stylistic.
Raises for teachers and deputies, a cut for Innovation Valley.
Where Burchett preferred to deliver his concise, no-frills speeches to County Commission in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, Jacobs went off-site to the auditorium of Central High School in Fountain City.
And where Burchett largely eschewed soaring oratory in favor of dry recitations of debt levels and budget statistics, Jacobs reached for rhetorical uplift, painting a broad vision of a county on the verge of greatness. (You can read the whole address here.)
“Everything is good here,” Jacobs said. “We’re doing good, but good is the enemy of great. We have the opportunity to be truly great. A place that the rest of the nation looks to with envy. One where we get calls from other places asking, ‘How did you do it?’”
But in the nuts and bolts details of the proposed county budget for 2019-20, Jacobs is mostly continuing established programs and priorities. The $853.1 million spending plan is up by $34.1 million from the current year, a 4.16 percent increase, and includes a $22.1 million increase over last year for Knox County Schools -- which Jacobs said is the school system’s largest-ever year-over-year increase.
The new spending will be covered by estimated increases in existing revenue streams. The biggest ones are an estimated $10.8 million rise in local-option sales tax collections, a $5.7 million increase in property tax revenues, and $7.1 million in new school funding from the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP).
The latter earned some attention from Jacobs, who said the BEP formula prioritizes rural school systems at the expense of more urban districts.
“That isn’t right,” Jacobs said. “Certainly, we want to be good neighbors, but my responsibility is to Knox County first and I will do everything in my power to make sure Knox County is treated fairly. I am committed to working with Governor Lee and our delegation to overhaul the BEP and ensure Knox County Schools receive the state funding they are due.”
The new money is going mostly toward salary increases -- a 3.5 percent raise for Knox County teachers and school staff, and an average 6 percent raise for Knox County Sheriff’s employees.
“It was really great to hear that we’re getting the largest increase we’ve had in years,” said Tanya Coats, president of the Knox County Education Association, which represents local teachers.
Coats also praised Jacobs’ support of the school board’s capital plan, which includes new elementary schools over the next five years for Lonsdale, Adrian Burnett in Halls, and a northwest Knox County school to relieve crowding in Hardin Valley and Karns.
"We have the opportunity to be truly great. A place that the rest of the nation looks to with envy. One where we get calls from other places asking, ‘How did you do it?’” – Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs
Sheriff Tom Spangler, who was elected last year on a platform of improving employee morale, said he appreciated the proposed KCSO raises but may still seek more as County Commission weighs Jacobs’ proposal.
“We’re going to look into the complete numbers,” Spangler said after Jacobs’ speech. “The 6 percent sounds good. I had asked for 8 (percent), so we’ll see what that comes out to. We may still need to talk to Commission.”
Spangler said that whatever is provided, he’ll distribute the bulk of the raises to employees at captain rank or below, to help bring up salaries at the lower end of the department’s scale.
Commission has scheduled a budget hearing for 3 p.m. next Monday, May 6, in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building.
Work to Do
Jacobs devoted a significant portion of his speech to the theme of economic development.
“The single most important thing we can do for our citizens and our children is ensure economic opportunity,” he said. “With record low unemployment across the state, our challenge is not only retaining and attracting new jobs, but ensuring these jobs are high-quality, high-paying ones.”
He touted Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority as regional assets that differentiate East Tennessee.
Interestingly, given Jacobs’ emphasis on regional development, his proposed budget actually cuts in half the county appropriation for Innovation Valley, the partnership of regional economic development agencies overseen by the Knoxville Chamber.
Last year, under Burchett, the county provided $400,000 Innovation Valley. Jacobs is calling for only $200,000, although county Finance Director Chris Caldwell said it was possible another $100,000 could become available if there is enough of a surplus at the end of the fiscal year.
In an emailed statement, Rob Link, the county’s communications director, said, “As Mayor Jacobs mentioned in his presentation, he wants to focus on economic development throughout the region. Funds have been reallocated to reflect this approach. He is looking forward to working with the Knox Chamber's new leadership in the coming months to establish priorities and will plan accordingly."
New Chamber President and CEO Mike Odom will start in the position next month. In the meantime, Jacobs’ budget provides $50,000 in funding to the Farragut West Knox Chamber, which did not receive any county funding this year. The Farragut chamber is not among the official partners in Innovation Valley.
Not mentioned in the budget address was the proposal to move the Knox County Schools administration out of the historic Andrew Johnson building and (possibly) into TVA’s vacant East Tower. Since last summer, the county has been sitting on a proposal to redevelop the Andrew Johnson as a hotel and residences.
In an interview after his speech, Jacobs said that deal is still possible, but made no commitments.
“This is contractually still being talked about, so I don’t want to get too in-depth,” he said. “But yes, we will be able to handle that (financially), if we have the opportunity. Frankly, the whole thing with the A.J. Building and moving the schools, we just want to do the best thing long-term for the county.”
Also absent was any discussion of facilities or programs to relieve crowding at the Knox County jail. Spangler said a task force appointed by Jacobs to study that issue should be reporting soon.
“That task force is still meeting, and actually there’s some movement with that committee,” Spangler said. “I hope to hear from them in the next week or two.”
In Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero’s own budget address last Friday, she raised the prospect of county cooperation in bringing minor-league baseball back to Knoxville. Asked about that on Wednesday, Jacobs said it would depend on the details.
“If we were presented with it, we would certainly entertain looking at it,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to burden our taxpayers with any additional financial debt or taxes in order to pay for it. So that’s something we’d just have to think about.”