Knox County's planning department turned a profit in 2019.

Director Colt Michaels told members of the Area Plan Commission this week the office ended the year $6,600 ahead of budget

And, he added, the agency will start the year with $42,000 in the bank.

But having the additional money won't preclude Michaels having eventually to ask the county council for a loan to make it through the end of the year.

Seeking such loans have become standard-operating-procedure for the department.

“We'll still have to do that,” he said. “Although we may be able to get by asking for less.”

For years now the office, which handles zoning and land-use permits, has had to get a loan (usually $50,000) to cover its expenses.

Annually, after conducting its review, the state's Department of Local Government Finance has reduced the amount of property-tax revenue the planning department expected to receive for that year. Usually, the state agency will cut the levy by as much as a third.

Why isn't entirely clear. The best explanation has something to do with a quirk in the property-tax rate designated for the office; and, too there is the impact of the tax caps approved by voters in 2008 and now part of the state constitution.

The county's Parks & Recreation Dept. experienced a similar problem for many years before it finally worked itself out.

And the problem may be solving itself with Area Plan as well.

Michaels presented commission members with a comparison of tax settlements for the office over the last few years, which showed property-tax revenues having doubled. In 2015, those revenues totaled just over $51,000; last year, they were almost $110,000.

In 2014 the agency received almost $95,000 in property-tax revenues. Yet that year, too, it had to seek a loan from the council.

The office also receives other tax revenues and they have steadily increased, from $1,574 in 2014 to more than $10,000 last year.

“I'm not even sure why we get money from them one year and then not the next,” Michaels said. “But … the totals have been going up each year.”

All told, Michaels said the department's financial condition appears to be stabilizing.

“It's looking better, for sure,” he said. “I wouldn't say we're completely out of the woods but it's better.”

Michaels also presented to the commission members a report on office activity over the years. From 2016-2019, its been averaging 50 petitions a year, for variances, conditional uses and zoning changes as well as new subdivisions.

Before that it was averaging only 20.

And while reported violations have also been on the increase over the last four years (134 violations between 2016-2019 compared with 22 total the previous two years), in a way that's a good thing, Michaels stated.

“I don't think it's so much that we have more developers breaking the rules,” he said of the increase in violations. “We're catching those who aren't following the rules, where we weren't in the past.”

Since 2015, total permits issued also have been on the upswing, from 160 in 2015 to 255 last year.

“It's really been busy, especially the last three years,” Michaels said. “And that's good, for us and for the local economy.”

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