By Steve Hunley, Publisher

It is a somber topic to start the New Year, but such an important one that I think it bears discussion.

Like so many Americans across the country, few Knox Countians seem to notice that Knox County government has a debt problem.  Including interest payments, Knox County is presently more than a billion dollars in debt.  One doesn’t hear much about the county’s debt and eventually there are going to be a lot of folks shaking their heads angrily, saying “Why didn’t I know about this?”

The county debt has had little mention in the local news media, as it is an unpleasant topic and many times it is easier for people to ignore unpleasant topics.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has acknowledged the debt problem and has calculated his budget accordingly.  Burchett has shown significant ability in stretching a dollar and keeping services functioning smoothly, as have most of Knox County’s officeholders.  The members of the Knox County Commission, by and large, have little to say about the debt and some seem willing to spend without too much regard for the need or importance of the expenditure.

Dr. James McIntyre, Superintendent of Knox County Schools, has to my knowledge, never acknowledged Knox County’s debt problem.  Frankly, it seems McIntyre doesn’t care how much debt Knox County carries.  Last year he proposed an exorbitant spending plan for the school system which would have required at least a 35 cent increase in the property tax.  Despite heavy support from The Knoxville News-Sentinel, most other media outlets, and an advertising campaign paid for by members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Superintendent’s request met with a jittery silence from the members of the Knox County Commission.  Not a single member of the Commission, after weeks of suggestions by some Commissioners about raising taxes, actually made a motion to do so.

There seems to be some belief on the part of the Superintendent and his allies that the state of the economy (not to mention the debt) has nothing to do with education.  The school system currently receives the lion’s share of the total budget as it is and the hallmark of McIntyre’s administration has been a constant craving for more.  At some point, there has to be an understanding on the part of the Superintendent and the Board of Education that not only does debt matter, but so does the state of the economy.  The battle cry of “It’s for the children” is meaningless in the reality of a poor economy and accumulating debt that will have to be paid back at some point.  Parents who choose not to pay the mortgage to keep their children in a private school will eventually be homeless, which certainly isn’t in the best interests of the children in the long run.

The school system will likely have a host of new financial problems with less funding from both the State of Tennessee and the Federal government.  Governor Bill Haslam is already facing the prospect of finding $1 billion for the implementation of “Obamacare,” money the state doesn’t have at the moment.  The governor will be forced to either propose new taxes or cut something else to pay for it.

It will be interesting to see just what reality Superintendent McIntyre and the Board of Education live in these days; If the Board does indeed continually wants more and more money, eventually they are going to have to defend their support for higher taxes in elections.  McIntyre has been singularly unsuccessful in acquiring new money and if that is the goal of the Board, it would seem they would eventually catch a clue and hire a new operating officer who can successfully work with Mayor Burchett and the County Commission.

If the Board and the Superintendent realize just what the average person is dealing with in terms of the state of the economy and choose to seek a continuation budget, it will be a sign they are living in the real world.  It may be that the Superintendent and some Board members are thinking the 2014 elections will bring in a more sympathetic County Commission; that ignores the possibility those same elections may bring a different Board with a different perspective on taxing and spending.

Some Americans and Knox Countians seem not to consider the prospect of the bill ever becoming due.  Greece thought exactly the same thing and look at them now.