Friday, June 24, 2005

Emotional Days in County Budget Hearings

The underlying emotions in county budget hearings are rarely understood outside the commission meeting room where Finance Committee Chairman Cleo Kirk and other commissioners hear public managers present their spending requests for the coming year.

But in private conversations, it is clear that department heads and division directors of county government resent the way schools are handled. For years, they have felt that there is a double standard for budget hearings. The county managers have cut services, budgets and employees so schools could get more. They are seen as political appointees while school officials are seen as educators. While they are grilled over every spending increase, school officials are treated mostly as professionals talking in philosophical terms.

With about $1 billion spent for education every year for public schools, the aggravation of county managers is almost palpable. As schools continue to get about 60 percent of all county property taxes, the portion for “general government” has shrunk.

Of course, the most pressing financial issue is the $2.2 billion in debt that demands about $2 million a week to service in debt payments. This has been done by increases in property taxes, but also, in cuts to county services, including the formerly sacred areas of libraries and grants to the Arts Council and various social service agencies.

It is a tough time to be a county manager, when such formerly untouchable areas get the ax. It sends the message that every thing is expendable…except for schools.

In fairness to commissioners and schools, however, even the most seasoned county manager rarely understands the little influence that Shelby County elected officials have over the composition of school budgets. In fact, state law forbids the mayor from getting involved and commissioners only have the power to set the tax rate to fund education. Other than that, they have no power to comb through the school districts’ budgets asking questions and making adjustments as they do with other county-funded services.

For more than two decades, school funding has been the #1 priority for Shelby County, a fact often obscured in the yearly budget rhetoric. Every thing else is a distant second. When school advocates fill the commission chambers with applauding supporters, it’s easy to pick out the county managers. They’re the ones sitting on their hands.

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