A brief dive into muddy budget waters

Larry Van GuilderAs I see it

I was minding my own business when this hard-charging newshound, Sandra Clark, ambushed me and brought me back into the fold. If Sandra didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent her so less gifted souls could have a role model for energy; she’s one of a kind. The truth is I’m glad she ambushed me.

With that introduction, we can get down to business. The business is writing a weekly column while Sandra takes a hiatus from “Gossip & Lies.” I’m most intrigued by government and politics, so those subjects are what we’ll generally pursue. I can’t conceive a more open-ended strategy than that.

Let’s take a brief look at how Knox County proposes to spend your tax dollars in the fiscal year 2020, starting with law enforcement. Those expenditures fall under the heading of “Public Safety,”  and everything from officers’ pay to vehicles is found there. The $93 million budget reflects an increase of nearly $15 million over the fiscal year 2016 budget, about 19 percent.

Are you “19 percent safer” today than you were four years ago? There’s no answer to that, but perhaps we can’t be too safe in a divided nation where extremists of all stripes increasingly resort to violence. It’s easy to find fault with peace officers until you need one.

The general purpose school fund is $68 million healthier than it was in 2016. The $506 million school budget makes up 59 percent of the total operating budget, but is it enough? According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Tennessee lags most of the nation in education spending per pupil; in 2016 only six states spent less.

In percent growth from 2016 to 2020, school spending trails public safety. If the outlay for schools regularly outpaced public safety would we need as much protection? Can we educate our way to a safer society? Seems worth a try.

Moving on to the budget for “Community Development,” something of a misnomer, it more than doubled from the previous year, increasing to $336,756. Despite its title, the department has as much to do with homeland security programs as traditional community development. The jump in the budget may reflect a new state or federal grant. We’ll try to find out.

Mayor Jacobs’ budget includes about $610,000 for senior centers with increases over the previous year ranging from a little over $5,000 for Halls and South Knox to $14,000 for Strang. The budget for the Karns center dropped by $1,006, however, which makes me wonder if someone out there got caught trying to heist the mayor’s Kane mask. Another puzzle to probe. See the senior centers budget details here: Knox County Senior Centers.

The budget ax cleaved “Indigent Medical Care” to the bone, slicing $1.2 million dollars from last year’s budget. More room is needed to treat this complicated issue fairly. For now, it’s stored in the “to do” folder.

Internal audit’s budget grew from an actual expense of $381,499 in the fiscal year 2019 to a budget of $705,397 in 2020. The department added one employee. Must be more here than meets the eye, or that’s one highly-paid auditor. This calls for more diving.

A riddle: How many lawyers, paralegals and clerks are needed to seek outside counsel’s assistance? The answer is 19 for the Knox County Law Department which budgeted $650,000 for that purpose. As Ricky Ricardo told Lucille Ball (man, I’m old), they “got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

On a cheerier note, the sheriff spent $5,238 on “Vice” in 2018. There’s a nice, round zero in the latest budget, so more citizens must be living right. Amen.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.  

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