When is an apparent funding cut not a funding cut? That’s the question, and the subject under discussion is the recent article in The Blount Countian headlined “Legislature slashes funding request for Wallace State/Oneonta campus.”
The basic facts of the article were more or less correct: the Legislature approved a $110,000 appropriation for a Wallace State program in Blount County. The original request made in the Senate was in early April. As a result, $110,000 was awarded by the Senate Budget Committee.
The amount awarded was considered a not inconsiderable achievement by the two members of the Blount County legislative delegation involved with the request: District 17 Sen. Shay Shelnutt and District 34 Rep. David Standridge, both of whom have Oneonta and the area surrounding it in their districts.
Why? Because a sizable amount was actually put into the budget by the Senate Budget Committee. And because the House Budget Committee, which earns its living by cutting the fat out of budgets, actually let them keep it. Both worked hard to secure that outcome in their respective bodies.
Yet, both felt blindsided by the newspaper article (though they did not protest it) reporting the seemingly drastic cut to the city of Oneonta’s request for substantial funding to construct the building that would become the permanent home of Wallace State in Oneonta (though Oneonta, not Wallace State, would own the building).
Meanwhile, the Oneonta administration, in the persons of Mayor Ross Norris and city manager Ed Lowe, who had worked diligently to secure funding for the project, felt blindsided by the cut in the request, compared to the substantial funding support they hoped for ($6 million dollars total or $1 million annually over six years). Why? The discrepancy rears its head
Why, indeed? Why were both sides surprised? The answer is simple on the face of it. Not so much so when you try to figure how it happened. Here it is:
Both Oneonta leaders say the verbal request was made explicitly for a specific amount of money ($6 million or $1 million annually for six years) and followed up diligently and repeatedly both before and during the legislative session. They said they were reassured at every contact that prospects for the funding request were favorable, though not a done deal.
Both legislators say that while they were asked for their support in general terms and they were aware generally of the overall cost of the project, no specific figure was ever mentioned as the amount they were being asked to seek, and no request was ever made in writing for a specific amount. In their minds, they had promised to try to help find funding for the project, and delivered to the tune of $110,000.
Both sides discussed the matter after the fact with The Blount Countian, though interviews with both Oneonta leaders and with Rep. David Standridge were declared off the record, so quoted statements are virtually non-existent. Shelnutt was willing to go on the record for portions of two telephone conversations.
Oneonta leaders vow there could have been no misunderstanding about specific amount of money legislators were asked to try to garner. Discussions were too specific and repeated too many times for it to have been a mere communications failure, they said.
Legislators were equally adamant that no specific amount of money was ever named as their target, and no formal request in writing was ever made, a standing requirement for any funding request. They agree it couldn’t have been a mere communications problem.
Other members of the Blount County legislative delegation told The Blount Countian the delegation was asked for its support in securing funding for the Wallace State/Oneonta Campus project. The project was described in general terms, members said, but no specific figures were provided as to how much money the delegation was requested to find or make available.
Other than those two incompatible statements, neither group pointed fingers.
“There never was an appropriation in the budget that got reduced,” Shelnutt said. “There had never been any formal request to begin with. I asked for an appropriation based on a description of the project, hoping to get whatever I could. There was never an appropriation in place until the $110,000 that was put in the budget after my request. I wanted to get more than that if I could and went back to the budget chairman and asked him if he could help us out a little more. He looked at me as if to say ‘be happy with what you got or you’re likely to lose it.’“
Readers should use their own judgment to fathom the relative responsibility of each of the three sides – including The Blount Countian – in the controversy that accompanied the funding request and its reporting.