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City budget time

It’s FY 2011 budget time for the Oak Ridge City Council. Although I’ve attended myriad meetings of the Council Budget & Finance Committee, I face a stack of budget reading: City budget and Schools budget — and audit report for FY 2009. The Council audit committee meets Monday at noon, and Council meets that same evening at 7 for a public hearing and the first vote on the budget.

This is a tough budget. No property tax increase and no layoffs, but also no money for employee pay increases or for a variety of items that department heads say their organizations need. In spite of that, total City spending will go up, mostly because of higher payments into the state retirement fund, to help make up for investment losses in the last couple of years. (This is one more opportunity for the public — especially our kids — to pay for the mistakes of investment bankers…)

Things look worse for the schools. Although the school board’s budget asks for a 3.5% increase from the City general fund (that’s more than the increase being proposed for city government), their budget cuts a bunch of positions, particularly for teacher assistants. That’s a shame, as I think that teacher assistants in the earliest grades are hugely important for kids. Like the city government, the schools face a big increase in retirement contributions. On the other hand, the schools are planning to give some raises to staff: there are step increases for teachers who are eligible (about half the teachers) and they are budgeting for a teacher bonus (if the state declares a bonus for staff positions covered by the state Basic Education Program, Oak Ridge will give the same bonus to staff whose positions aren’t in the BEP). School finances have a way of improving after the city budget is passed — if things work out like they have in recent years, the school budget picture will get slightly better in June or July. Maybe the state won’t declare that bonus, or maybe the final state education budget will be more generous than currently projected…

One feature of the budget that’s disappointing for a lot of us is the fate of that traffic camera revenue from FY 2010. People have a lot of excellent ideas for using that money for special initiatives to benefit the community, but it’s needed to plug a hole in the FY 2010 budget. The hole is largely due to two problems: (1) Property tax collections are lagging more than usual (that’s not all that surprising) and (2) a new GASB accounting standard calls for revenue to be accounted for in the year it’s collected instead of the year it was due. That’s a sensible rule, and I’m surprised and disappointed to learn that it’s not the way things have been done (apparently the City has previously claimed tax revenues when due, even if that’s years before they are collected). Unfortunately, though, the one-time accounting change has created a budget shortfall for the first year’s traffic camera money will fill.

Monday night, I expect more vigorous discussion of the budget than we’ve had in recent years. We’re likely to hear from members of the public who have been told (incorrectly) that it was City Council decided to cut those positions out of the school budget, several Council members are likely to propose cuts in specific items, and I won’t be surprised if one Council member asks for additional funding to hire several police officers.

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Tennessee: Please don’t take these two backward steps

I expected the state budget to be the main topic Monday morning at the League of Women Voters’ monthly Breakfast with the Legislators, and I was right (as Bob Fowler reported in the News Sentinel). I didn’t predict the discussion that occurred over reauthorization of the Tennessee Plan (the procedure that Tennessee uses to select judges for the state’s highest courts) and proposals to return to the days when most school superintendents were elected, not appointed. When asked about these topics, neither State Senators Randy McNally or Ken Yager gave clear and forthright statements of support for the status quo. Both hemmed and hawed a lot, and Yager’s comments suggested that may be leaning toward returning to direct election of appellate court judges (but only in non-partisan elections — he said he opposed having appellate judges elected in partisan elections) and that he might want to let counties go back to electing school superintendents.

I found myself with the sinking feeling that the Republican majority in the State Senate is committed to restoring direct elections for these positions, and that our two local Senators were reluctant to say anything contrary to their party’s position.

Direct election of senior judges and school superintendents is a bad idea. We need to maintain an independent judiciary that makes decisions based on the law, not on popular opinion or the wishes of big campaign contributors. Also, we need for our public schools to be run by professional educators who are motivated by the needs of children, not the need to be re-elected.  I hope the General Assembly members recognize that changing back to direct election of these offices would be a major step backward — no, make that two steps backward — for Tennessee.

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