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Is County Government Really Singing "Kumbayah"?

by Joe Sullivan

Last spring, the Republican majority on County Commission was raking Democrat County Executive Tommy Schumpert over the coals for everything from bungling on a new baseball stadium to getting rolled in Nashville on state legislation that could pave the way for massive annexations by the city of Knoxville. Contentious commissioners sought to make a scapegoat of Schumpert's lobbyist, Molly Pratt, and came close to appointing a courthouse operative of their own ilk, Ray Hill, as their separate envoy to Nashville. After last summer's county elections, Schumpert sympathizer John Griess was deposed as commission chairman and succeeded by stalwart conservative Leo Cooper. There was even speculation in some quarters that Cooper would form a shadow government, with the GOP's county kingpin, Sheriff Tim Hutchison, somewhere in the backdrop pulling strings.

As the first robins of spring start chirping once again, though, the refrain emanating from most county governmental quarters sounds much more like "Kumbayah." Baseball is long gone as an issue, and Schumpert is singing out of the same songbook as anti-annexation commissioners when it comes to the workings of the state's new urban growth planning process. "I don't see any areas outside the city where any urban services are needed that aren't already being provided," is his stated point of departure for a plan to preserve, protect, and defend the county's turf.

On the fiscal front, it almost seems as if Cooper is laying the groundwork for the hefty property tax increase that Schumpert is certain to propose when he submits his county budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. "It's inevitable that Tommy will have to come with a tax increase," the courtly County Commission chairman says. "There's a 14 cent increase [in the property tax rate] built into his five-year capital plan, and we almost have to approve it. Then, the way in which we tapped the county's rainy day fund last year to provide pay raises for the sheriff's people and other county employees necessitates an operating tax increase this year. And I think most people recognize that we can't continue to cut back on the school budget, especially teacher salaries."

That's a far cry from Cooper's vehement opposition the last time Schumpert proposed—and barely got—a property tax increase in 1995.

But the needs are different now not only in Cooper's view but also that of such other tightfisted commission veterans as Howard Pinkston, who predicts an increase of 10 percent or more.

Cooper goes out of his way to stress his harmonious personal relationship with Schumpert, harking back to the time when he was Schumpert's assistant and then successor as basketball coach at Central High School. "Tommy and I go back years and years together in the school system, and we remain very good friends even though we've had our political differences from time to time," Cooper says.

The two men also see eye to eye on the county's role in financing the new $160 million convention center, on which the city has taken the lead. Schumpert will recommend—and Cooper supports—dedication of $1.5 million annually of the county's hotel/motel tax revenues to convention center debt service. That represents the 40 percent of these revenues presently totaling $3.5 million that is statutorily required to be committed to tourism boosting capital projects. However, Schumpert is for capping the county's contribution at the $1.5 million level so that any future revenue growth could be applied to other projects. And Cooper further qualifies his support by saying, "I want to see Major Ashe's entire financing package before we make the commitment." That could prove to be a hitch because Ashe is getting nowhere with his proposal to raise $3.5 million by doubling the city's gross receipts tax as a major component of an overall $10 million to $12 million debt service package. That proposal would require state legislation, and legislators don't want anything to do with any other business tax increases after having to contend with the mammoth one that Gov. Don Sundquist laid on them.

At the staff level, erstwhile nemeses Pratt and Hill now seem to be getting along famously. "Molly and I have gotten to be really good friends," claims Hill, who is now County Commission's chief of staff. When Pratt had to put down an aging Scottish Terrier recently, Hill, who has an 18-year-old Scottie of his own, was there to console her. Instead of the brickbats that Hill directed at Schumpert when he was managing Scott Davis' losing campaign for county executive last year, bouquets are now the order of the day. "Mr. Schumpert has bent over backwards to be exceedingly generous to the commission and its staff," Hill says without making it sound too obsequious.

While harmony has rarely prevailed for long in county government, about the only notes of discord at the moment are emanating from the sheriff's office. Hutchison is chafing over an $89 million budgetary lid that Schumpert and the Public Building Authority have collaboratively imposed on outlays for the new jail and sheriff's headquarters, which represent phase one of the county's grand design for a downtown justice center that would eventually house all state and local courts as well. Even though the $89 million represents a $17 million increase from earlier projections, the sheriff's forces contend an additional $9 million is needed for more space.

PBA retorts that at 580 square feet per bed the new jail already exceeds a 460 square foot norm, and it has instructed the project's architects to come up with design changes that will accommodate some of the sheriff's needs without pushing up the cost. At a County Commission agenda-setting meeting on Monday, Schumpert appeared to draw a line in the sand when he stated that the $89 million budget would "drive the project." Hutchison didn't challenge him on the spot but reportedly began pressing afterward for PBA's removal as project manager in order to gain more control himself. (A sheriff's spokesperson downplays these reports.)

Not even Cooper, who might be expected to side with the Republican sheriff in such a dispute, warms to that idea. "If PBA is removed it puts Tommy and Knox County in a precarious position. I don't think it would be safe to change jockeys in the middle of a horse race."

But the sheriff still has allies; and next Monday's County Commission meeting just might see a return to the battle royal motif that has characterized its workings in the past.