Several Hamilton County school board members think the County Commission overstepped its bounds Wednesday by voting to hold on to money generated for schools from payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements.
"They need to decide if they want to be school board members or county commissioners because state law says they can't do both," said Linda Mosley, chairwoman of the school board's Finance Committee.
Used to attract businesses to the county, PILOT deals eliminate property tax payments -- except for the percentage slated for schools -- for years, sometimes decades.
In the past, PILOT money has been given directly to the school system for use in its general purpose budget, district officials have said.
Members of the County Commission, who want to put the roughly $6 million—the estimate for 2012—toward new school buildings and land acquisition, said Wednesday they won't act further until a joint meeting with the school board, scheduled for Feb. 14.
"Until we take further action, nothing is really cut into stone," commission Chairman Larry Henry said.
Commissioner Greg Beck cast the only vote opposing the resolution to place any PILOT money the county received since the beginning of the year into a holding account.
But Mosley said she believes the decision already has been made, and the relationship between the school board and County Commission is not positive.
"I would say there's really not a relationship," she said. "It's not as healthy as it should be."
Mosley said she left a message with Henry, the commissioner for District 7, where she lives, last week after the PILOT discussion first surfaced, and he has not returned her call.
But Commissioner Warren Mackey, who is chairman of the Education Committee, insisted after Wednesday's meeting that the relationship between the board and the commission "is not adversarial."
"The county should operate like a family...[the school system] needs to live within their budget," he said. "Don't expect Warren Mackey to give anyone $370 million without any accountability."
Local money that funds the public school system—property and sales tax revenue—comes through the County Commission and is allocated to the school district.
Commissioner Joe Graham, who first introduced the PILOT resolution last week, said that, after campaigning for office on promises of government accountability, he was concerned that the school system could not tell him exactly how it planned to spend the PILOT money.
Still, he said, he plans to listen to what the school board has to say at the joint meeting later this month, he said.
"We're going in there open-minded," he said, adding, "We've heard this song before. Seems like the more money we give, the more money they need."
Mosley said the commissioner's comments indicate how little they know about the way the school system operates. Unless money comes to the district with strings attached, it simply goes into the system's general operating budget, making it difficult to say exactly what expense certain dollars fund.
"Unless it's earmarked, like for a federal grant, we don't earmark each individual dollar we get," she said.
During a school board Finance Committee meeting last week, board member Rhonda Thurman said she thought the board as a whole did not spend the school system's money wisely, so she understood why the commission would want to take control.
School board member Jeffrey Wilson said he was unsure what the board's next step would be.
"It's the big elephant in the room right now...if there are some board members who are willing to cede their authority, then there's not much you can do as a board, collectively," Wilson said. "It's an affront on our ability to make decisions. You would think that the whole board would be horrified, especially [since it was done] without any communication."
The Hamilton County Commission will meet with the Hamilton County Board of Education in the board room at 3074 Hickory Valley Road on Feb. 14 at 5 p.m. The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss whether the commission will continue to withhold the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes money to use on school construction.
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Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...