Friday, August 05, 2005

August 5, 2005 The deficit budget passes

To no one's real surprise the Hamblen County Commission voted for a general government (General Fund) budget that is about $460,000 in the red yesterday. This is a deficit budget-- where the county starts the year expecting to spend about $460,000 more than it takes in. Spending more than you take in is not a good idea for a family budget. It's not a good idea for a government budget either.

This will be played as a "no new taxes" vote. Your property tax bill in October, however, may show that you owe more taxes than you did last year. Why? Because your property's assessed value likely went up. When the property tax rate goes up or when the assessed value of the property goes up, the property tax dollars you pay to the county go up. So when you hear "no tax increase" in the press, don't assume that you will be paying the same amount of taxes as last year.

The real significance of yesterday's vote? It is an admission that most commissioners can't or won't balance the county budget. Most commissioners are willing to use one-time money (pulling down the county's rainy day fund balance once again) to pay for recurring county expenses--an economic practice that eventually leads to bankruptcy.

Did we have a way to avoid a deficit budget in 2006 without raising the tax rate? Yes, we did.

At yesterday's meeting, I put forth the only balanced budget proposal for the General Fund that was made during the entire budget process. It was not rocket science. It was just a matter of returning the wheel tax revenues more in line with the split that was used in 1999 when the wheel tax was first enacted "to build up the general fund." In 1999, the $27 wheel tax was split into $23 for the General Fund and $4 for the School Fund. Over time the split changed with less and less going to the General Fund. With each change in the split, the General Fund got in worse shape and eventually reached an all-time low in 2003.

My proposal was simple. We could balance the General Fund budget by changing the $27 wheel tax split so that $21 would go to the General Fund and $6 would go to the schools. With this proposal, the General Fund was balanced (no pulling from fund balance, no using one-time money for recurring expenses, no simply postponing a tax hike), and the schools would receive $2.4 million in new additional funding for the 2005-2006 school year.

Tom Lowe, a staunch opponent of deficit spending, seconded my motion. It went to a vote and was defeated 12-2. Tom and I were the only supporters of the balanced budget proposal.

Although Commissioners Bruce and Osborne and a few others said they didn't like the deficit budget that was before them, they offered no alternative. If you grew up in the 60s, it reminded you of the line from Hee-Haw, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." Only this time it would be, "If it weren't for a bad budget, we'd have no budget at all."

Other commissioners sat virtually silent during the whole process--no idea, no comment, no proposal.

Apparently after spending many hours over many months on a deficit budget, no one was willing to propose spending cuts, no one was willing to propose a tax rate increase, and no one had a proposal for a balanced budget--except for my balanced budget proposal mentioned above.

The silence and the lack of alternatives reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, "Don't expect the people who got you into a mess to get you out of it."

FYI: In my August 3, 2005 post, I spoke of the proposed General Fund deficit of $760,000. Things got changed around yesterday as the actual budget vote was taken. Yesterday, the General Fund ended up with a $460,000 deficit and the $300,000 that was originally going to be part of the General Fund deficit was instead taken out of the debt fund.

3 comments:

Janice Veglaicich-Colona said...

My name is Janice Veglaicich-Colona. I moved here from Mount Laurel, NJ 1 year ago. I am in desperate need to understand how education takes such a backseat in the eyes and minds of people of Hamblen County.

What I have read in the local paper doesn't convince me that there are enough people in this town (Morristown) who really care about the future of our children. It takes a lot of money to raise a child, and it takes a lot of money to educate a child. These ideals go hand in hand, or at least they should. Why don't they?

Inflation, rate increases, fees, taxes, I don't care what you call it--the truth is prices on everything goes up. So why is it Voodoo to speak of increased funding toward education? I read in the paper that we can expect our electric bill to increase by 7.5%. We still keep our lights on and watch TV, so we pay it. Gas prices have dramatically increased. We still keep driving everyday, so we pay it. Mortgage rates just went up 1/4 of a percent. OK, we still buy houses. Milk has double in price in the past few years, but we still drink it. What makes education so different? If it cost "X" amount of dollars to give our children the best education, then we should pay it.

I cannot believe how the mindset is solely based on "don't raise taxes", but at what price? I have been a consumer here for a year. So many young people today who attempt to join the work force in Hamblen County are so dumb. They cannot make change. They cannot multiply and the cannot speak correctly. Everyone frowns at "ebonics" and believe me, I am the first one to complain about that. What do they call it here? "hillbillybonics"? I have yet to meet anyone that can talk with a correctly conjugated verb. And don't give me that mountain heritage garbage, because that is exactly what it is.

We have to shake this stereotype of keeping our 1950's ideals. It is a nice idea in theory, but it is killing us on every level. Morristown is growing at break neck speeds. Jobs are needed, but what do you do when those jobs require educated young people to fill them? Employers are looking outside of Hamblen County to fill these jobs. News flash--not everybody can work at the local Walmart and Gas Station, there simply are not that many spots to fill. And no, I am not "downing" any employees at those above mentioned places, but Good God, let our children a.k.a. our future get a jump on leading our county to be an example of what education really means for Hamblen County.

Respectfully Submitted,
Janice Vegliacich-Colona

Linda said...

Janice,

You are right that it takes a lot of money to raise and educate a child. You make many excellent points. Since you have recently moved here, please let me share some information with you.

By law, funding for education in Hamblen County can not go down--unless there is a substantial drop in enrollment or an economic crisis of some sort.

Every year, funding for education from the state and from the local government has gone up. But has education really improved?

You point out that young people graduate from high school and cannot speak correctly, make change, and do basic multiplication. Will different textbooks correct these problems? No. Will new weight rooms correct these problems? No.

What can we do to address the problems about which you are concerned? Our primary focus should be on teaching the basics because the problems you have pointed out are examples of a failure to provide an educational foundation for basic success in life.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as simply throwing more money into the "education" pot in order to get the better educational outcomes that we all seek--whether the outcome is as basic as being able to make change and speak correctly (as you have pointed out) or whether the outcome is as complex as being able to handle algebraic equations and analyze Shakespearean drama.

It will take a major revamping and overhaul of the educational system--both in Hamblen County and across the state--if we are to see real improvement and if we are to be assured that a foundation for success has been laid for every child.

Does this require more money? Not necessarily. Does it require better management of existing funds? Absolutely. Simply rearranging class schedules to provide significantly more instructional time for reading, writing, and arithmetic (aka "math") in grades 1-3 would bring about improvements in those basic skills that are the foundation for all advanced skills in later grades.

After school tutoring by teachers, volunteer tutors from Walters State and the community, and peer tutoring are all part of the solution--and some of this is being done now.

I believe that merit pay for teachers and a readjustment of pay scales with increased pay for those certified in areas of greater need are also a part of the solution. (But this is one of those taboo areas that one doesn't talk about in polite company)

I believe that teacher tenure will some day soon be a relic of the past. I have mixed feelings about this. Tenure is good where it protects a good teacher from a politically-motivated firing; on the flip side, tenure is often perceived by the public as providing lifetime job security to marginal and even poor teachers.

I believe that we need to take another look at block scheduling that was adopted at the local high schools some 10 years ago. It may be an idea that sounded good in theory but that is not academically sound in practice. Some adjustments have already been made in math and other courses to provide year-round instead of semester instruction, but the entire block scheduling concept should be reviewed completely.

I understand that many schools are starting to back away from the 90- minute classes that are the basis of block scheduling and are going back to the more traditional year-round 55-60 minute classes.

A number of different viewpoints and ideas for improving education should be considered--not just the same old "more money" requests that have failed in the past. It's time for new and creative ideas.

And if something doesn't work, ditch it. Don't just keep throwing more money at it. By the same token, if a particular program does work, keep it and work even harder at it.

Many individuals, groups, and organizations in Hamblen County care about education.

As for me, I have three children. As a parent,I was closely involved in my children's education every step of the way. All three graduated from the University of Tennessee.

As a teacher for 11 years, I was involved in the education of hundreds of young people. I enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of my students, and I worked hard every day to help them both academically and socially.

As a supporter of athletics, I coached middle school basketball, and I was a member, officer, and president of the all-sports athletic booster club at West High.

I was an early and vocal supporter of improved educational facilities. Back in 1997--many years before you arrived in Morristown-- I was highly involved in getting a comprehensive school building program off the ground. I was teaching English at West View Middle School on Economy Road at that time. [It has since been remodeled and is now called Manley Elementary.]

The old West View Middle was one of the last of the "open school" designs in Hamblen County. You can imagine how difficult it was to teach English to a class of 25-30 students while another English teacher tried to teach a classroom of 25-30 students right next to you. All this with NO walls to separate the two classrooms. I wrote letters to parents, helped organize meetings at West View involving parents, teachers, and school board members, and attended joint school board-county commission meetings to encourage the adoption of a comprehensive school building program. The building program was adopted and funded by county commission.

Unfortunately, the school board then took the $32 million that was provided for school improvements and drafted questionable contracts that resulted in conflicts of interest and bidding practices that resulted in numerous (22 or more) single bids being received and awarded. After other concerned citizens and I spoke to the State Comptroller in Nashville in 2001 about the bidding anomalies and the reality of the conflicts of interest that the school board denied, state law was amended unanimously in 2002 to prohibit the local school board and others across the state from handling school construction management in the way that the Hamblen County School Board did from 1999-2002.

All this is to say that I value education as much and perhaps more than many people in Hamblen County. I know that education is the key to personal success--of course, a little luck along the way can be very helpful, too. My parents stressed the importance of education to me, and I have stressed the importance of education to my own children.

I wish that money were somehow a "silver bullet" that would solve the problems within the educational bureaucracy. But it isn't.

We have problems that money can't begin to address. We have problems that go deeper than financial shortages. To solve the problems you have mentioned--time, time, and more time devoted to the basics is needed. And the same is true of the problem of not having a highly educated workforce.

We have many excellent teachers, and we offer a varied and challenging curriculum for those who choose to avail themselves of it. It is my opinion (and you may certainly disagree) that an excellent education is offered to students in Hamblen County, but unfortunately some students and parents do not see the long-term value in education. Therefore, some parents do not push, encourage, and help their children, and it is also true that some students do not push themselves to get as much from the educational offerings that are laid before them, free for the taking. You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink.

Once we are able to get support from all parents and to help students see the value of their K-12 education, then we will have a major part of the answer to our educational dilemma.

Thank you for your comments. You make many excellent points. We obviously agree on the importance of education, and I'm sure we both hope that more parents and students will come to realize the critical importance of education. Students should take advantage of the wonderful and challenging opportunities for learning that exist within our local school system.

Joe Powell said...

Some great points there in your response Linda -- maybe you should make a separate post from that. Keep up the good work!!!