Charles Frazier, 54, is a pastor at New Friendship Baptist Church and host of the Community Television program “Community Report.” He also co-owns an advance check cashing business in East Knoxville. A Knoxville native, Frazier is a graduate of Carter High School.
Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.
On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city’s attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city’s homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?
Frazier: Yes, I would. Just to put it in perspective, say that we keep that as an ordinance. 10 or 15 years from now, and you and I are talking and I tell you, “I’m not feeling well. Let me sit down for a minute and gather myself.” You say, “Do you want me to call 911?” “No, this is just a blood pressure issue. I’m going to sit down and have myself a little drink of water. I’ll be okay in about 10 or 15 minutes.” Then a police officer comes by and writes me a ticket. Come on now, that’s un-American!
Now, I do think that we do need to have—whether it’s homeless people or anybody—a respect for people’s businesses. I don’t think that homeless people—whether they have drug, alcohol problems, or mental health issues, should be sleeping in front of someone’s business. That’s one of the issues that a couple of business people brought up. So something has to be done about that, but just to come out and say they can’t sit on the sidewalk—that it’s against the law—that’s ridiculous.
Converting South Knoxville’s Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates’ forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, “spread the burden” of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?
Frazier: In terms of building housing for homeless people and addressing that need, you know, I’m in the 6th District. That seems to be a place where people say, “Let’s build it in the Sixth. Let’s put this issue in the Sixth District.” Now I can’t represent my district well if I allow it to be a dumping ground. The other thing is that we know Flenniken was in the First District. So what we see are these issues in the First, the Sixth and the Third. So if we are going to address the issue of homeless housing, it has to be throughout the whole city. It can’t just be these three districts that are the ones that have to do the housing.
It will [be controversial if introduced in other districts]. It can be a large problem that we all have to learn to deal with. We have some homeless people that are coming out of mental institutions because they often house them—throughout the nation—in mental institutions. So we have homeless people that have some issues. It’s more than just housing. We need to address this as a social issue. How do we get people counseling? How do we get people help and how do we get people what they need?
I’m going to go out and I’m going to meet with homeless people and I’m going to learn something from them. This is because we’re going to have a workshop on homelessness in City Council really soon. But how many homeless people are going to be at that workshop to help people understand the reality of homelessness and how it should be addressed.
You’ll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you’re elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?
Frazier: That’s a Catch-22 because even large projects and large businesses are employing lower and middle-income people, and the only way we’re going to change this situation is with investment. But the toughest part for a councilperson in the next four years, in terms of the economic part of it, is the revenue base is shrinking, and we’re going to have to discriminate in order to have a balanced budget for the City of Knoxville. Property tax monies are going to decrease. Sales tax is going to decrease. So, it’s going to be a great challenge.
I do think we need to give tax breaks and incentives for new businesses and for projects. I saw two projects that were voted in by City Council to the tune of $600,000 a few meetings ago. I was in agreement with that. Both of them were in Lonsdale. Both of them have some incentives in terms of giving people some tax breaks. Even though that was in a lower income area, I think that in all areas of Knoxville, in order to generate change, we’re going to have to do these.
Now, I’ll be candid with you about something like Cityview. I think that project was $38 million, and the city put in over $2 million. Do we need to do that? Well, we don’t need to have them vacant. We don’t need to have them unfinished, but ...[sighs] hoo! I’ll say that think each one of them needs to be looked at individually.
Give us a for instance: What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?
Frazier: I hate tax increases. I don’t think that helps anyone in an economy like this. Now, we have to support a tax increase to make sure we’re providing basic services of the city: fire department, police department.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Frazier: We might have to have a cut in the operating budget of Parks and Recreation. But, you know, in order to provide basic services to the community and to provide them at a high-level and give people a good quality of life, we might have to have one for that. But I hate to increase taxes. I don’t want to increase taxes. Talking about nonprofits, I think we have to look at what kind of money we’re contributing to things. What’s going to happen is we’re going to have to get down to the basics. I think in terms of funding, we’re going to get to a point where $10,000 counts, $200 counts, $100 counts. I think that, sure, we need to have some things that encourage socialization in our community, but then we have to balance the budget. Yes, I think things like nonprofits might have to take a hit in the future.
Is the city’s plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?
Frazier: I think it’s a wonderful plan. I don’t like housing developments. I don’t think you can take upper echelon, upper income people and put them living on top of each other, living so close to each other and expect them to have a good platform for a good quality of life.
Not only am I in support of the demolition of Walter P., I look forward to it looking like HOPE VI in Mechanicsville. Still I know in this economy, one of the things that’s going to be very important to me will be to make sure of the energy of the new houses that are going to be built. I’ve been knocking on doors in Mechanicsville and asking people what they need. One of the things they’ve complained about is, you know, “My utility bill is $500. My utility bill is $600.” One of the things I look at specifically is that energy efficiency is part of the plan of how these things are built.
Do I think that every unit should be replaced? Well, you know I asked the number. I asked how many people are living in Walter P. I already know when the new project is built it will not accommodate that many people. That’s just because of the way that old complex was built. You had people on top of people, people so close to people. I already realize that not all of these can be replaced. It’s an issue of square footage.
Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Frazier: The Magnolia project is really important to our community. One of the things I’ve built into my platform is that I want to build a retail shop near Austin-East. Austin-East is one of the most visited places in our community. I want to see the young people from Austin-East High School not only work there, but also I want to see them learn about entrepreneurship, the accountability that comes with running a business. They should know that labor costs are supposed to be 22 percent. Food costs should be 15 to 17 percent. That’s one of the things I want to see.
Also, since we’re demolishing Walter P., we have a lot of housing changes. On Castle Street, we have new housing being proposed there. They’re going to put out a Request for Proposals for new property development there. But, you know, East Knoxville is old. It’s an old community, an old part of Knoxville. East, North, and South are old. West is new, and growing. You know, I’ve been candid about this before, and I’ll say it again. I am in favor of affordable housing, but I don’t want all the affordable housing to be in my district. I want to see it spread throughout the city more. I want to see more private developers and I encourage that. I want to see upper-middle-class development in our community.
Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well-organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?
Frazier: Yes. Communications brings around understanding among people. I think we would have to meet with these groups and work out the details of how to coexist in the city.
An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family’s deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good?
Frazier: I don’t know. I think that if I were sitting on council and dealing with the issues and taking votes for a while, if I were in that position that I would know the difference between how it was before I was there and how it has become. I’ve been going to city council meetings for over a year, and I’ve seen things debated, discussed. I’ve seen workshops. I really think I wouldn’t be able to assess it until I’ve seen things for two or three years, to see how things have changed. Really, I don’t know.
Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force’s preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer’s ability to “maximize” a hill or ridge property?
Frazier: Knoxville is growing extremely fast. And with Knoxville growing, I am a person who wants to protect our hillsides and ridgetops in our community. I want to protect them not only as a resident but also as a businessperson. I am pro-business. My granddaddy was a businessperson. My dad was a businessperson. But it doesn’t always have to be so strictly about the money part of it. I’m definitely a protectionist when it comes to the slopes and hills of this beautiful valley.
So yes, I would support those policies because, to my perspective, it gets down to this: Are the slopes, the hillsides, the beauty of this community to be preserved? What’s more important, a project for money or preserving the natural beauty of our community? So, I’m on the side of preserving our community over some type of economically driven project, whether it’s a condominium development, a shopping mall or whatever.
I’m sitting here now having lunch with a guy who was reared in Dayton, Ohio. But, I’m sitting here with him, and one of the things that he was really impressed with about this city was the beauty of the city. He moved back here from L.A. and he still tells me about the beauty of this city. And I think those of us who were raised in the hills of Tennessee, we take this for granted a lot.