Will the Knox County Commission Serve We the People or Special Interests?

Will the Knox County Commission Serve We the People or Special Interests?

By Steve Hunley

This evening the Knox County Commission will  vote on the TVA Tower lease. Another commission vote will be held later on whether to sell the Andrew Johnson Building and move the Knox County School System into the TVA East Tower. County Mayor Glenn Jacobs thought it would be easier to get his way if two votes were held.

This TVA tower deal has been sixteen years in the making and is one of the most complex deals in the history of Knox County. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are at risk and this deal has over 23 legal contracts. This idea started in 2004 with then County Mayor Mike Ragsdale proclaimed how great it would be to put the Andrew Johnson Building back on the tax rolls. Now current County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is all in and is pressuring county commissioners to make this happen.

Mayor Jacobs has even threatened to impose a Plan B should commission not do what he says. Selling the Andrew Johnson Building for a fraction of its value has enraged taxpayers and they have called their commissioners and made it clear this is a bad deal and they want no part of it. Jacobs’ Plan B is Knox County leasing the TVA Tower and, instead of moving the school system there, Jacobs says he will move all of Knox County government there from the City-County Building. Mayor Jacobs forgets he cannot do anything unless county commission votes to do it. Why does he keep forgetting this? Jacobs is not a king. He doesn’t have a vote.

For some reason Jacobs really wants this TVA Tower deal. When he was a candidate for county mayor Jacobs told anyone who would listen to him that his big plan was to buy East Towne Mall and move Knox County government there. That is a plan that actually makes good sense for taxpayers. Why the flip flop? Now Jacobs is trying to kill that idea forever and has pushed all cards in on the TVA Tower deal. Why is Jacobs so intent on a deal that is so bad for the taxpayers?

This vote tonight will be a test of who county commissioners actually serve. Do they serve the taxpayers or special interests? If they serve the taxpayers they will vote this very bad deal down.

The sale of the Andrew Johnson Building for a fraction of its actual value would be giving away a very valuable and unique building for nothing in return for the county taxpayers. The taxpayers lose money they will never recover. This is a new low. Not only do the taxpayers have to give a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) and maybe also a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) for loss to the taxpayer. The low bidder buys a building we, the taxpayers, paid $25.6 million dollars for in principal and interest and own outright and then Knox County “sells” the Andrew Johnson to the highest bidder for $6 million dollars.

How does that make any sense? That is madness. That is a loss of paid-for equity of $19.6 million dollars and then the taxpayers are to lease the vacant TVA Tower for maybe up to 40 years? You and I will take a hit of 77% paid in equity and then will pay a PILOT and maybe a TIF so the Andrew Johnson Building can be on the tax rolls? The requested PILOT is for 25 years. How will this generate any taxes in our lifetimes?

The low bidder for the Andrew Johnson Building is BNA Associates of Nashville. They want a PILOT before they break ground on renovations to the Andrew Johnson Building should this proposed ”deal” pass both the Knox County Board of Education and the Knox County Commission. The market rate of the Andrew Johnson Building is between $17 million and $19 million dollars based on comparable real estate comparisons in that market area of downtown. It is appraised at the property assessor’s office at $13.6 million dollars. Who thought it was a good deal to sell the Andrew Johnson building for $6 million dollars? Mayor Jacobs says it is a good deal. What you need to grasp is there is “accountant” accounting and “politician” accounting. They vary by many millions of dollars. You need to pay attention to these things. It is your money.

Boy Howdy, you should see the “politician” accounting on this pursuit of selling the Andrew Johnson Building to put it on the tax rolls. The Knoxville Focus has received multiple pro forma cost projections for this deal from Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell. You would need Pappy O’Daniel’s “Brain Trust” to unravel this mess. The numbers don’t add up and they have been changing on a weekly basis.

Imagine if you were to sell your house that you own outright at a 77% discount and then sign a 40-year lease at a ”really good lease rate” to move to another house so you could escape some maintenance costs and some ADU (American Disabilities Act) upgrades? The actual truth is the elevator needs to be replaced in the Andrew Johnson Building because of an ADU agreement with the federal government.

Wouldn’t it be much smarter to simply fix the elevator and stay in the Andrew Johnson Building we already own and save the taxpayers millions of dollars? Your county commissioner will make that decision today. If they vote down the TVA Tower deal we could keep the Andrew Johnson Building. The Andrew Johnson Building is your house. You literally own it. How do you feel about this real estate deal? It is your money. Do you see a financial return in your lifetime?

In an earlier commission workshop Commissioner Michele Carringer asked, “If the TVA Tower is such a great building why has it been vacant for 15 years?” No one in the Jacobs’ Brain Trust has been able to answer that question.

Isn’t it also so very odd that the most current matchmaker of this sweetheart TVA Tower deal is Mike Arms, the president of the political consulting firm Tennessee Strategies?  Arms was a former Knox County Commissioner and former chief of staff to the former Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who is also co-owner of Tennessee Strategies. This alone should raise a number of questions for the taxpayers and members of county commission.

On Monday the people of Knox County will learn who their commissioners really serve. Do they serve the people? Or unseen forces seeking to make money off the taxpayers? We hope and pray our commissioners honor their oaths of office on Monday and vote this bad deal down. This vote will show which county commissioners work for We the People and which county commissioners work for special interests.

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