Birney Imes: Time to pay the piper

July 23, 2011 10:17:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Speculation has been rife in recent weeks over what manner of tax increase will be required for the city schools'' budget. The lack of information coming from the district''s central office has fueled a growing sense of unease. 


Taxes will be going up; that much everyone agrees. Just how much depends on whom you ask. 


There is a lot of finger pointing going on, and some of those fingers are pointing north toward Sumner County, Tenn., where recently departed superintendent Del Phillips now runs the schools. 


For four years, Phillips worked his magic here. He took a moribund school system and infused it with energy, closing under-used schools, creating a magnet school system, leading the charge for a successful bond issue and then building a $22-million middle school. Just as significantly, Phillips brought back credibility and restored enthusiasm for the city schools. 


All that innovation came with a cost, and Phillips'' critics say he''s left the district holding the bag. They now want to bury the Caesar they once praised. 


Phillips bristles at the assertions of his detractors. 


Everything he and the board did was on the up and up, he says. 


"The board signed off on everything we did," he said. 


This weekend the former superintendent was in the area to attend the wedding of a friend''s child. At the request of another friend, Mayor Robert Smith, Phillips met Friday morning with Smith, three councilmen, tax collector Greg Andrews and city operations manager David Armstrong. The group wanted the former super''s take on the budget situation. 


"I told them they needed to make $600,000 to $700,000 in cuts and ask for a 3-mill tax increase," Phillips said afterward. 


A 3-mill increase will cost the owner of a home appraised at $100,000 $30 more in city property taxes annually. 


Andrews isn''t so sure 3 mills is enough. And then, there is the matter of funding the city, which he says needs more money, as well. He says that increase could be another 2.5 to 4 mills. 


Presently, the city contribution to the city schools is about $13.5 million; the city itself -- administration, fire department, police, street department -- runs on less than half that, $6.5 million. 


Andrews believes the city schools and, for that matter, the city, have deferred needed tax increases for three years. In the case of the schools, they have taken money from the district''s reserve fund to make up shortfalls. Added pressure came from the unanticipated reduction in state funding, now almost $2 million a year less for the Columbus district than it was in 2008. 


"They needed to be moving that millage up each year," said Andrews. 


After the passage of the $22 million bond issue, Phillips dropped the school''s request 1.88 mills to its present level at 62.97. Phillips had said the millage increase needed to fund the new school would not exceed 3 mills (beyond its then 64.85 level). 


Yet the district reduced the millage and kept it down. A popular move then, but now it''s time to ante up, says Andrews. 


Two years ago, the city borrowed $3.8 million to pave roads and service debt (something Andrews disapproves of). He expects the paving financed by the 20-year loan will last eight to nine years. 


"They all seem to be living for the moment," he said. 


As for the school district after Del -- who Andrews says was the most financially savvy superintendent of the nine he''s worked with -- the tax collector is less charitable. The picture he paints is one of confusion and inconsistency. 


"Between me and the mayor, we''ve gotten four different budget requests from the school district, and none of them have been adopted," he said. "Del always hand delivered his budget on or around June 20." 


The first request, delivered in May, was for $14.3 million; the most recent was $13.5 million, a number Andrews says will take a 4.5-mill increase to reach. 


"No one there knows what to do," he says. 


A meeting between city and school officials was unproductive, says Andrews. According to the tax collector, the district''s chief financial officer, Ken Hughes, when asked specifics about the budget, deflected questions saying, "I answer to the superintendent." 


"He wouldn''t answer," said Andrews. 


Andrews believes the administration is top heavy, and he questions some of the cuts that have been made. 


"They''re talking about cutting; they cut the golf program (Andrews'' son plays golf.) and saved $6,000. The week after they hired a new principal (Scott Hallmark) at the high school for $95,000 they gave his wife a job at the high school as the sixth science teacher for $49,000." 


"They''ve cut golf, cross country, slow-pitch softball and volleyball," he said. "Those are programs for the kids." 


About the needed tax increase, Andrews says, "Somebody has got to stand up and say, ''this is what we''ve got to do.''"

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.