At last night's candidate forum at the Knoxville Expo Center, two things became central to just about every topic the Republican Knox County Commission candidates addressed: taxes and the school board.
To be fair, the school board races are much more contentious this election cycle than the county commission. In fact, there was only one moment of real dissent among the candidates during the entire hour-long Q&A.
The candidates (Dist. 3's Randy Smith and Billy Stephens, Dist. 7's Bo Bennett and Charles Busler, Dist. 11's Ed Brantley and Michele Carringer, and Dist. 10's Bob Thomas, who has no primary competition) were asked whether they'd consider either bypassing Nashville with a resolution changing the superintendent of schools to an elected position. The question was clarified after Stephens spoke first to whether the candidates would ask the state Legislature to change the rules to make the schools superintendent an elected position. All but Stephens were more or less in favor of at least relaying county residents' wishes to state representatives. Bennett said he was supportive of the commission collectively asking the state Legislature for a change.
"That's outside the realm of the county commission," Stephens said. "I would not have problems talking to somebody. But you have to realize where the authority lies."
"We already have a forum for that. We elect a state senator and a state representative," Busler said. But he did bring up the possibility of working with the state legislators.
Carringer got some significant applause when she said, "Everyone needs to be held responsible when it comes to teaching our children, and our tax dollars that go toward that," which built on her general theme of making sure Knox County is a good place to raise families. She added that she'd be willing to speak regularly with state representatives.
The candidates were also asked "who the ultimate law enforcement officer in the county" is. Smith, who answered first, Stephens, and Bennett all said the district attorney. Busler, Thomas, Brantley, and Carringer said the sheriff, to some determined clapping from a small crowd.
"I feel like this is a trick question," Thomas said after Busler got some applause for giving his answer.
"Ed, even though you're my opponent, I think you're right here. The sheriff is always the top law enforcement [official] in Knox County!" Carringer said with great enthusiasm to Brantley.
Earlier in the forum, the candidates were asked if, given a budget shortfall, they'd vote to either raise property taxes, raise local sales taxes, cut programs, or borrow money. Down the line, every candidate said he or she would not vote for a property tax increase, and that borrowing money would be a last-resort option.
"As everyone has said, the main thing is maintaining low taxes," Smith said, summing up the entire discussion. "I'd ask to put the sales tax increase on a referendum to let the people decide. If the people voted down a sales tax increase, I would favor cuts."
Carringer said she'd vote for a sales tax hike referendum before borrowing since, she said, it would be more fairly distributed among residents and tourists passing through than property taxes. Stephens said he'd prefer anything to a property tax hike. Bennett said cuts would come first, and then he'd look at raising sales taxes. Busler said the rainy day fund could be tapped in an emergency, but said tourism was key to raising money.
"Anyone who says they'd raise taxes might as well just go home," Brantley said.
Current Knox County Commissioner Mike Brown (Dist. 9) wrapped up the forum when he stepped up to the mic, and reminded each of the candidates that school system matters are largely out of their hands.
"Education is probably the single biggest issue that affects us in Knox County," Brown said. "The state controls the education in Tennessee. We, the people, elect nine people to dispense that money to the people we elect to control that money [the school board]. It's going to have to be the taxpayers that tell them how to spend it."