published Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Fight the commissioners

The County Commission's stubborn refusal Monday to release to the county school board $6 million in in-lieu-of-tax-payments (PILOT funds) that are reserved for the county schools under tax abatement agreements leaves the school board no choice but to seek a legal remedy to the commission's wrongful withholding of funds.

Superintendent Jim Scales should initiate such action immediately. There's no sense in wasting any more time in an attempt to reasonably settle the issue outside of court if the myopic commissioners are not willing to acknowledge their fiduciary duties with regard to designated school funds.

Scales should immediately ask the Tennessee School Board Association and the state's Attorney General, Robert E. Cooper Jr., for a legal opinion on the school board's right to receive and apportion the PILOT funds. Even the obvious split on the school board over whether to keep Scales for the balance of his contract should not prevent school board members from coalescing around the need to force the commission, in court if necessary, to surrender the funds that rightly belong to the dedicated school portion of the county's tax and PILOT revenues.

Scales also should consider a Chancery Court lawsuit for a declaratory judgment on the school system's right to obtain these funds for the school system's general budget.

The commission's obduracy on this issue is breathtaking. The PILOT funds in question, like other PILOT funds in this category, were carefully negotiated under the state and local tax abatement agreements for Volkswagen and its supplier industries to preserve school funding.

The abatement agreements generally waive or defer specific city, county and states as an incentive for economic development. But they also acknowledge the public interest in public education and the need to sustain school funding. Thus the county collects the same revenue for schools through the PILOT agreement that it would receive in property taxes for the school fund if there was no abatement. (The school fund portion of the $2.7652 countywide property tax rate is presently fixed at $1.3726 per $100 of assessed valuation.) It is illegal, moreover, for county governments in Tennessee to reduce the school portion of the property tax fund once it is established, and the commission's attempt to control the PILOT funds essentially violates this precept.

The state's "maintenance of effort" mandate for county-based school funding was reasonably established to prevent county commissions from tampering with school funding for political purposes. Commissioners may choose not to raise taxes to help meet school needs, but when they do fix tax rates for the school system, they cannot reverse course and cut them in some future year. It is under that legal umbrella that the PILOT funds at issue are intended to go toward general funding of the county's school system.

Since elected school boards were established under Tennessee's Education Improvement Act of 1992, moreover, Hamilton County's school board members have been elected from the same districts as those established for the County Commission. They and they alone hold authority for overseeing the use of the general funds for schools collected by county government. County commissioners are not authorized to run the school system, nor may they dictate the allocation of funds that they are required to release to the school board.

Yet this commission's members, with the exception of Greg Beck, are wrongly trying to withhold the $6 million in new PILOT funds (they have rightly released previous PILOT fund monies) from Volkswagen and its suppliers in an attempt to allocate that money for half a dozen new school buildings, despite the fact that the school board says it needs the money to help close a projected $7 million shortfall in the new fiscal year's budget.

The commission's presumption of the need to build the schools with funds that should go to operating expenses is wrong on its face for other reasons, as well. County government has traditionally financed the building of schools through bonds that are retired through the county's general fund. Commissioners have no grounds to reverse course on that method: It makes good use of the county's low municipal bond rates, and it also prevents county commissioners from tinkering in school system operations.

The school system, moreover, may be better off using rezoning to make more efficient use of its existing buildings, than to sink more money into buildings. Given the school system's static enrollment figures and some buildings that have been partially vacated due to sprawl, that could make better sense than building new outlying schools.

In any case, the school board, not the County Commission, was elected to run the school system. It's members are charged with pouring over the details of curriculum, personnel and policies, and fixing the school system's budget. County commissioners do not spend the time to know these issues, and they do not have the expertise that school members acquire over time.

County commissioners should accept their responsibility to turn over the PILOT funds, as they have in the past. It's the school board's duty to run the school system. It is also board members' duty to fight for the funding that the school system is due. If they have to do it court because county commissioners are wrongly trying to usurp the school board's duties, they must not shirk from that responsibility.

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jpo3136 said...

Reject the money.

The PILOT Tax is, first of all, a tax. It may be named as though it's not a tax; but, it's a tax. Anytime lawyers try to rename something so that a definition can be denied, it's often a setup for further manipulation. Notice how, by not admitting that the PILOT Tax is a tax, follow-on regulatory conditions are denied. People will now think they can do whatever they want with the money.

Reject the money. Let them explain why they collected six million dollars in excessive taxes. Let them try to continue to poormouth everything, when they accidentally created a six million dollar surplus.

The Hamilton County School System has, and was given, an approved 313 million dollar budget. This off-budget --extra-- six million dollars that the commissioners are dangling before the teachers is just another less than 2% worth of bait.

While many people say they want that six million, those comments are really just a description of how attractive the bait is. It does not describe the results of a basic risk assessment of the situation.

What will happen if we reach for the bait? What will happen if we take the bait? What will happen if we use the bait?

Commissioners have already tipped their hand, by commenting that they want a future budget reduction, into showing that they want to manipulate the school board and the school system into agreeing to future constraints.

It's not to the advantage of the commissioners to give the schools an extra six million dollars. Of course, we should scrutinize the risks. The commisioners' main motivation is getting more power through re-election. The main motivation of the school system is educating our kids. While it may initially look like the PILOT Tax brings those two needs together, the circus tricks being demanded by the Hamilton County Commissioners show that it does not.

Since the Hamilton County Commission is not doing their duty and disposing of this tax money as the law directs, let them wear it. For shame. Bring that shame. Reject this money and expose these people for the manipulators that they are.

They are failing to do their duty, and trying to manipulate a bunch of school teachers. Give them a pop quiz on reality. Turn the tables on them by rejecting their off-budget funding agreements. Require them to stick to their budget and plan for the use of this tax money they collected.

Bring up their selfish failures every day, from now until election time. Make them own their shabby plan every day.

Seize the initiative. Fight back. Reject their terms and the money.

You want to fight these commissioners? Reject the money. If they don't want to do their duty, let them roll in it. With the general operating budget approved and on hand, we don't need their bait.

Reject the six million dollars and all of the nonsense the County Commission has put on us recently.

February 17, 2011 at 12:28 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

Every ploy, pleasure and plan those commissioners offer is predicated on the idea that the six million dollars is irresistible. Denying that money denies the Hamilton County Commission of the hook in their bait. Stick it to 'em.

Reject the money.

Be on the lookout for:

acronyms like PILOT, which manipulate people into accepting fictitious definitions; bait-and-switch shell games with budget sections; and the next move, what they would "waste" the surplus on if they can't spend it on schools.

Be sure to notice any characterizations like blessings or cursings they may provide; is the money "wasted" or "invested", for example. Notice how those turns of phrase benefit them. Their main goal is flatter voters and financial contributors.

The County Commissioners are responding to presentations by complaining about photocopies, when millions are at stake. They haven't thought through a contingency which accounts for the schools doing anything but wanting to get the money. They're unprepared.

The Hamilton County Commission hasn't done its homework on manipulating the schools. They don't have an answer or plan if they become required to continue doing what they're doing now.

Exercise is often doing an ordinary task at greater intensity, duration or speed.

Let 'em hang on to that tax money they say is not tax until next year. Isn't there some kind of annual accounting they have to answer to? How do the voters feel about charging an off-budget extra six million dollars in taxes?

Reject the money. Fight back by refusing them an advantage. Reject all six million dollars in PILOT Tax funding.

February 17, 2011 at 12:46 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

Do the commissioners think the teachers absolutely have to have six more million dollars?

Shut off every light in school district, especially at headquarters. Use sunshine through the window to illuminate the classrooms.

Shut off the heat when it gets cold. So what if it is 50 degrees in there? Heating is not necessary to teach Algebra.

No air conditioning in the summer. If it is 80 degrees in there because the Hamilton County Commissioners screwed up paying for the school budget, too bad.

Schoolteachers know how to be poor. They are treated like dirt every day. Kids expect their schools to be shabby. The tougher their environment is, no problem. Creature comforts do not support teaching. I have seen people go to school in 140F heat.

Let those kids go back home and whine about how there is no light or air conditioning in the classroom. Do they feel sick or sleepy because these commissioners didn't pay for the basics? Let 'em wear it.

We need to buy lunch for the kids and pay teachers as employees. Let these draconian idiots fail to pay out the last 2% of the budget.

Teachers are used to being poor.

Politicians are not used to explaining how they created new taxes when they campaigned against every kind of tax they could think of.

Politicians are not used to explaining how they screwed up a six million dollar windfall surplus.

Then, after doing without this year, we'll be seven million plus behind. By messing up this year, politicians will need to raise taxes further next year to make up for this year's errors.

The pols are pressuring the schools now to set themselves up for success during 2012. Stick it to them now. Don't tolerate their disgusting selfishness.

8 hour school day goes to 10. Extend the school day, at the same pay and on the same resources, just to pressure these pols even more. With unpaid resources not providing the basics, and with a refusal to compromise on quality, we won't be able to have bigger class sizes. Instead, we will need an extra class per day to make up for their budget idiocy.

School drags on until 5 p.m. It messes up everyone's schedule. Since teachers still need a planning period, park those kids doing homework in the gym and at the unused cafeteria tables. More math for them.

These commissioners are unprepared for the parent complaining hell that teachers put up with every day. Teachers know and understand that poverty, complaints, and griping students are normal. They flourish under those insane, hellish conditions.

Give 'em hell, teachers. They don't know what hell looks like until they've seen made parents of teenagers complaining about Math homework and long school days messing up the commuting schedule.

Reject every cent of the six million dollars in PILOT Tax money mismanaged by the Hamilton County Commission.

February 17, 2011 at 2:01 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

When they cinch next year's budget based on this year's PILOT tax, what will happen next year?

So, let them slash the budget. They won't be able to attract another six million dollars in new business PILOT Taxes next year. What then?

Smaller budget. More facility failure. Direct more immediate pressure on the facilities, not the teachers, as a result of the Hamilton County Commission's failure to understand who is in charge of these schools.

If they want to pressure the teachers and the schools because attracting new business let them create a new tax that they are supposed to use on schools, but won't: then let them do just that.

They will fail to bring that same income next year. They will rack up more debt this year. They will flunk even though they have, in hand, a six million dollar surplus.

Stand up to these punks on the Hamilton County Commission. Reject all six million dollars of PILOT Tax money. Reject their ridiculous terms.

Penalize them for every moment they insist on getting their way.

February 17, 2011 at 2:10 p.m.
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