Knoxville had a city election last week for mayor and city council seats. There will be a new mayor and four new city council members. Out of 187,000 residents and 92,000 registered voters only 25,360 people in Knoxville cast votes for mayor. That means 13.6% of the total residents and 27.6% of the registered voters voted. Knoxville’s abysmal turnout has passed peak apathy and is heading toward voter paralysis.
Current Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said she is pleased there will be a smooth transition with the election of city Mayor-elect Indya Kincannon. Kincannon won the mayor’s race with 52.4% of the vote. Some pundits and local media refer to this as the third term of Mayor Rogero. If so, what will that mean for Knoxville?
As a new mayor and council begin there are serious concerns about spending proposals from both the current city government and the next city government. The questions are simple, how can the city afford all this new proposed spending? This year the budget for the city of Knoxville was $483.8 million dollars. City council has already voted on and approved moving the Knoxville Police Department to the old St. Mary’s Hospital complex. That will cost between $40 million to $65 million. City council has yet to vote on a proposed $111 million renovation of Chilhowee Park. Council considered a $100 million tear down and rebuild of the Civic Coliseum but later went with a $10 million renovation. The $30 million pedestrian bridge from South Knoxville to Thompson Boling Arena is still desired. Mayor-elect Kincannon has signaled she may restart the Ten Year Plan, which failed under Mayor Haslam because it would cost over $100 million. As the new mixed-use apartments with reduced parking requirements are built out it has been estimated that this will cause a $70 to $100 million expansion of the Knoxville Area Transit bus system.
When a person spends more money than they have earned and saved they go bankrupt. The same thing happens to cities. What would happen if the city of Knoxville went bankrupt? The burden would fall on Knox County. This would more than likely result in Metro Government by default.
Five times in the history of Knox County powerful political forces have tried to bring Metro Government to Knox County voters on the ballot. Metro Government means the city and county form a merged consolidated government with one voting body that controls everything in the county. Nashville has one and it is a nightmare. The few places in America that have Metro Governments have the greatest rate of over spending and high taxes, which is exactly the opposite of the promise of Metro Government which is supposed to create efficiencies to reduce taxes, but it never does. Ask the people in Nashville.
Each of the five times on the ballot in Knox County citizens rejected Metro Government with their vote. Additionally on two occasions these “political forces” have tried to bring Metro Government by means that were procedural and were stepping stones to a future vote by Knox County citizens for a Metro Government.
One was a failed attempt in the Tennessee Legislature with the idea of an “Urban Services District” which was an attempt to fool Knox County taxpayers outside the Knoxville city limits that they would not have their property taxes double or triple with a merged government. It was a beautiful illusion because supposedly the city limits would become the “Urban Services District.” Inside this area taxpayers would pay extra for city services. Outside this area, taxpayers would not pay extra since they did not receive those city services. This Trojan Horse would have side-stepped state laws on annexation and there was nothing that could stop the new Metro Government from expanding that “Urban Services District” all the way out to the county limits. This would have resulted in a county-wide Metro Government where everyone paid the same tax rate which would have been an extensive tax increase for those outside the city limits. Fortunately this never happened. But it was clever.
Then there was a much publicized pair of citizen ballot referendums in 2008 which were called the Orange and White Ballot Charter Amendments which was another attempt to trick voters into a Metro Government. If the voters had bought the promises, Metro Government would have been one four year term away. The voters rejected seven of the nine Orange and White Charter Amendments on the ballot and all that happened was Knox County Commission was reduced from 19 members to 11. Again the voters saw through the clever scheme.
Taxpayers in Knox County outside the city limits are now wondering if there is a new way to protect them from a city of Knoxville financial default. They don’t want to be stuck with the massive balloon note of debt from a city bankruptcy.
There could be a way to protect Knox County taxpayers with help from the Tennessee State Legislature. It’s called a poison pill. If the Legislature passed a bill which would create an “Urban Debt District,” which would be the current city limits, if the city went bankrupt the new Metro Government would have a special additional tax for the “Urban Debt District” to pay for the city’s old debt. You’ve seen in stores a sign that says, “If you break it you buy it.” It’s the same idea. Yes there would be a Metro Government but the taxpayers outside the city limits would not pay the city’s debt.
Would city council and the new mayor be more financially responsible if they knew, “if you break it you buy it?”
The Focus will continue to keep an eye on city spending and continue to keep our readers informed.