Having served on a number of Knox County and Town of Farragut government boards during the past 25 years, Ron nie Rochelle said, “I’ve basically trained myself” to serve as the next Knox County Commissioner representing At-Large Seat 10.
“I just want to make Knox County a better place,” said Rochelle, a successful businessman, certified financial planner for 22 years and a stockbroker, in his first race for elected office, said.
“My heart told me to run,” he added.
Rochelle owned three Parkway Galleries “high-end furniture” stores in East Tennessee, including one in Knoxville, for 18 years. That business venture ended with a sale he termed “a lucrative day.”
At that point, “I started volunteering for various government boards,” he said.
Rochelle remains a member of Knox County Board of Zoning and Appeals, which he added has been a “training ground for (County) Commissioners.”
Also a former chairman of Knox County Parks & Recreation Board, Rochelle’s roughly 15 years living in Farragut included “about three years” serving on Farragut Municipal Planning Commission (2010-2012).
The task Rochelle said is most vital to the county’s long-range financial health and stability is cutting more into $662 million in debt.
“I intend to reduce the debt principal $40 million every year,” he said.
“This has become probably my major issue for why I’m running as a Commissioner: “I got a hold of the Knox County budget, and I got a hold of how much debt Knox County has,” Rochelle said. “It is financial lunacy, is all I know how to describe it. We are $662 million in debt. The number in 1998 was $242 million.”
Of the $75 million Knox County pays annually in debt service, “$43 million of that is to reduce the debt [principle] number. But it’s not happening. We’re not reducing our debt at all. … Nobody is talking about reducing the debt. We don’t have $75 million to waste. … $75,000,000 every year just going in the trash can.
Rochelle said his plan, if elected, is to examine what he said is “$711 million in loans, leases and bonds. I intend to review every one of those and see if I can restructure any of those. … The variable ones are getting ready to kill us because we’ve got a rise in interest rates, and then we’ve got these so-called synthetic swaps, which are most complex product you’ve ever seen.”
To pay for any future school construction, increased teacher pay, increased deputy pay or road improvements — all cited as needed by Rochelle — “and we don’t have the money, we’re either going to have to do what Farragut does, do without, or we’re going to have to come up with a plan to accumulate that money,” he said.
Rochelle said if his plan to examine and restructure the county’s loans, leases and bonds doesn’t free up enough money to make a significant dent in the county debt, there’s only one alternative.
“If I can’t find the money in the budget, I’m going to ask for a property tax increase,” he said. “I would need at least $20 million (20-cent increase) … and we need to dedicate it to debt service.
“If I could actually get that to happen, that would free up the money to do all these other things that I’ve talked about,” Rochelle added. “… Roughly speaking, $19 million would go to debt reduction and $1 million to the interest payments.”
“We haven’t had a property tax increase in (17) years. … If I cannot find the waste that will save me the money to do the job properly for Knox County to be financially solvent, then yes, I will advocate for a property tax increase.
“We’re not going to build the future of Knox County on a mountain of debt,” he said.. “… If I don’t get elected because of it, well that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
“Someone has got to step up and stop this lunacy.”
However, concerning a possible property tax increase, “We don’t have to make it permanent,” he said.
Comparing “just the school portion of our debt versus Chattanooga (in 2015),” Knox County’s debt service “is $32 million,” Rochelle said. “Chattanooga, which has a higher property tax rate than we do by 44 cents, their debt service for their schools (was) $100,000 (in 2015).
“That’s $32 million that we are wasting on debt service for our schools,” he added. “… If we’d stay on budget we’d be $2 million richer every year.”
The bottom line with cutting the debt according to Rochelle, “It needs to be reduced by at least 50 percent to build for our future.”
Otherwise, “My grandkids haven’t got a prayer” to deal with the spiraling debt short of paying much higher taxes, he added.
Rochelle said the projected 2019 fiscal year debt principle is scheduled to be reduced just $5, to $657 million. However, “I sincerely doubt that will happen,” he added. “In fact, I think the [principle] will go up. … Interest rates are going to go up another 1 percent, probably, in the next year-and-a-half, two years. … We’ve got some variable bonds in that debt load, and it’ll suck up every bit of that $5 million.”
Whenever any issue requiring county funds comes before Commission, Rochelle said, “I would like the Finance director to tell us, ‘if we pass this particular request, this is how it’s going to affect our budget and this is how it’s going to affect our debt.’ I don’t think that’s done.”
For county teachers and deputies starting their professions in Knox County, “they are not getting paid properly,” he said. “The deputies, to survive, have to moonlight.”
Rochelle said Knox County Board of Education “needs to have more interface with the Commission” in the process of allocating funds and making decisions for Knox County Schools. “At least let us look at everything” school board decides, he said, asking that Commission have a voice while still allowing school board to have final say on policy.
Though Knox County has 2,200 miles of roads, “They’re paving just 20 miles a year,” Rochelle said, adding one of the county’s most important improvements would be “having good roads.”
Moreover, new business and industry considering Knox County as a home “aren’t going to come here with potholes and patches and cracked roads,” he added.