Rogero to offer budget options

Victor Ashe
Government/Politics columnist

Recently, Mayor Rogero held a budget retreat with City Council at the Convention Center, outlining budget issues as her staff saw them.

She said she would present a 6 percent cut in one city budget and another budget that would fund the increase for the city pensions, cost-of-living raises and infrastructure projects. The second budget would entail a city property-tax increase, but the mayor was silent on the specific amount.

What is interesting here is Rogero is working to have the council advise her on what to do as opposed to advocating the exact plan she favors. In this way she can share more of the responsibility with council if it becomes a tax hike.

Having proposed several tax hikes and a few tax cuts myself as mayor, including a referendum submitted to the voters in 1988, I felt the mayor should lead when it came to revenues. Part of leadership is persuading City Council and citizens to support the mayor’s recommendation.

Mayor Rogero was forceful in advocating the no-build alternative to the James White Parkway extension in South Knox, to her credit. She was forceful in advocating a pension-change charter amendment in 2012. She can do it here, too.

How did the mayor arrive at a 6 percent cut for one budget as opposed to a 4 percent or 2 percent cut?

The budget documents refer to cost-of-living raises, but the truth is different. The 2.5 percent pay adjustment is more than the cost of living. It is an employee pay raise. Perhaps a 2.5 percent pay raise as required by ordinance is justified, but it is not truth in advertising to call it a cost-of-living adjustment.

Mayor Rogero will present her budget on April 24 to City Council.

There is $60 million in the city’s fund balance, which has grown by $40 million in the past 10 years. It will be hard to explain why city residents must pay more property taxes with such a large fund balance. It will require 20 to 22 cents on the property-tax rate to fund these pay raises and additional pension costs, plus some infrastructure improvements. Of course, this could be reduced if some money was taken from the fund balance, which is not unusual.

It is becoming clearer to this writer that the mayor may recommend a property-tax hike, hoping that a majority of council will have bought into it. That remains to be seen.

However, it is surprising that the mayor and council have not allowed city voters to consider more immediate changes to the city pension plan to reduce the need for such huge transfers.

For example, why should current retirees such as I receive a 3 percent annual pay raise on our pension when current working city employees receive a 2.5 percent pay raise? Retirees should have their pension adjusted only to offset inflation.

The 2012 Rogero-backed pension charter amendment failed to solve current pension financial issues as was pointed out at the time. It dealt with issues 15 years off. Council members Grieve and Stair voted no on the Rogero charter change.

Other cities are moving to reduce these escalating costs. Knoxville should do the same.

The fire that basically destroyed what remained of the McClung Warehouses was incredibly unfortunate for the mayor’s plans to salvage these historic buildings. Her well-intended plans collapsed in the fire. The city now owns vacant land at a cost of $1.45 million plus demolition of what remains there. It is appropriate to investigate what caused the fire.

Were adequate security measures in place to prevent vandalism? Will the city’s self-insurance cover any of the loss? What can the market bring the city when it sells the vacant land?

The mayor, in my view, should not be faulted in her attempt to preserve. Many wish she would make the same commitment to residents of Fort Sanders in their continuing battle with Covenant Health and UT.

Mark your calendar for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, to hear former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter speak at UT’s Baker Center.

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