City Council Candidate Q&A: Nick Della Volpe, District 4

Our complete interviews with 2009 Knoxville City Council candidates

Nick Della Volpe, 61, is an attorney who is now in the process of “winding down” his practice, which has taken the better part of the year. He attended Villanova University for his undergraduate degree and received his law degree from St. John’s University shortly before moving to Knoxville in 1973. He is married and has been living in his current home since 1974. To prepare for a career in local politics, he has recently taken course in accounting and business finance at the University of Tennessee.

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?

Della Volpe: I’m not sure how sitting on your ass constitutes a First Amendment right unless you’re sitting there for a political protest. That would be a very hard case to make. I haven’t heard the reasons on why to repeal, so I guess my answer is no. I think it’s a good law for this reason: The taxpayers built the sidewalks and we need them to travel up and down on. Businesses rely on safe, wholesome environments for customers to walk and come into their premises. If you have people blocking doorways or areas where you have to cross over and get into your business, this is going to kill businesses. That’s not a healthy thing. The sidewalk is made for passage. You stop and chat with someone, great. But if you start using them to lie down and spending all day there, you’re obstructing the sidewalk. You’ve got 200,000 taxpayers paying for the sidewalks, and you’ve got 800 people saying we can’t use them. I don’t think so. How comfortable do you feel walking around at night with seven or eight people congregated?

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?

[Note: Della Volpe answered this question in part in an e-mail he sent following this interview. Here he is referring to the Waterside Building at Lakeshore Park, formerly part of the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. Under an agreement between the city and the state, it must be demolished by October. “Why not explore the rehab and reuse of the dormitory the city is supposed to tear down at Lakeshore at a cost of $1 million? The city said we contracted with the state to do that, so we are stuck. Simple reply: Explore an amendment; contracts are renegotiated and revised every day. Hmmn, a dormitory built for supportive care being rehabbed for current supportive care. Sounds rational.”]

Della Volpe: When you ask about new locations, you’re starting in the middle of the conversation. I’d like to back up one notch if I may. First, there’s some question about the soundness of this program as it presently exists. I think almost everyone at that forum said it needs some review to see how good it is, how effective it is. The problem is that we’re talking about the chronically homeless, not someone who got sick, lost his job, and ended up losing his house. These are people who have been homeless three or four different times in the course of several years. According to the statistics from Dr. [Roger] Nooe, the UT guy who wrote the underlying study and has been updating it every five or six years, more than 60 percent of them have problems with drug abuse or mental illness. So, we have to be sure if we’re doing this stuff, that we have the funding and staffing for case management to make sure these people are being cared for. These are the folks who, by definition, are given some meds for mental illness, and then they stop taking them and go off the deep end.

So, sticking a house in a neighborhood doesn’t solve their underlying problems. We’re talking about chronic homeless and not incidental homeless. My concern right now is the question you asked and that is, they talk about spreading these folks around the city and kind of sharing the burden. But the reality is they look for the poorer neighborhoods, the inner-city places. The land is cheaper, and the buildings are available or vacant. They seize upon that, and they don’t really spread out the burden. We haven’t seen the first proposal for some kind of supportive housing in Sequoyah or West Hills or Turkey Creek or any of those kinds of upscale places. The burdens are hitting center-city communities, South Knoxville, East Knoxville, North Knoxville. And that’s not fair. For someone to say they’re going to spread this around is not fair unless they show real locations for those places to go.

The financial end of it is they’re building some of these units for $120,000 or higher, sometimes up to $200,000 for a unit, and the average price of a Knoxville home is $79,000. Maybe that’s an appraisal value. Maybe it’s worth more on the market. I don’t know. But why are we spending twice as much money for the homeless population than the taxpayers are on themselves? We’re doing something wrong. When it’s costing $6 to $8 million to rehab Minvilla, maybe we should look at bulldozing it and building new.

The real question is if this city has a planning process through the MPC that sets up zoning and a process for selecting housing with a rational basis for it, I don’t think we have to be scared about what we say or do. Now, obviously if we do something for a blatantly discriminatory reason, not only can the city be sued [for a violation of the FHA], but will probably lose in a suit. But, they just have to follow good practice under the zoning laws we have that are designed to protect the safety and health of the community. They’re designed to put factories in an area zoned for factories, and housing in an area zoned residential, and that sort of thing.

Now are there criteria as to whether you can take federal money and then not dance to their tune? I’m not sure, but to say that the citizens who live in a place lose their First Amendment rights to speak their mind and their concerns to their government, I’m not sure federal housing authorities have the power to change the U.S. Constitution.

As to how the city acts, if it acts with a reasonable purpose, with motives of normal objectives of sound planning and safety and such, I’m not particularly concerned that someone could argue they did it for the wrong motives. You have to look at the facts. To say we have another mandate that says we can’t run our own city to the best advantage of its citizens, that just doesn’t make sense to me. I think we just have to step back, listen to what the people have to say, and reasonably reevaluate your program.

There’s sort of a fallacy of logic in this plan. The logic in this Ten Year Plan is there’s a population of about 800 people, and once you place them, the problem goes away. But when you look at that 800 number, it’s really a snapshot in time, a scoop out of the river. Look at this population, and maybe 40 percent of them are from Knoxville. Some of them are from Anderson County, from Union County, from Campbell County. Those places don’t have programs to help those folks. We start leading with those programs, and we start to become sort of an attraction for those folks who are looking for these benefits. You know about the land rush we had in the 1800s in this country? “Free land in the Midwest, go out there and stake it out.” Well, “free houses in Knoxville.” Do you think when you get to that 800th person, there won’t be another line of people behind him. The notion or the premise that it’s a defined problem that will go away once you solve this one thing. There’s going to be a limit as to how much how much our government can do to carry the burden of other communities’ unfortunates. We need to be more worried about what we do.

We need to help these people the best we can. We don’t have to destroy Knoxville or any of our neighborhoods in doing it.

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?

Della Volpe: Let me begin by saying I was the only candidate of 14 running who went to all of the city budget hearings because I was interested in city finances, in looking over the mayor’s shoulder, and making sure taxpayers are getting the right end of the stick.

Going back to your question, I believe that TIFs are intended for projects that can’t otherwise be done and it makes it cost feasible to have some kind of government intervention. Logic to me says that if we buy in as a community, keeping taxes lower for some period of time, we’ll gain the benefit of both your development raising property values there and in the surrounding area, and increase our tax base out of that. I agree that we should use TIF financing if it’s going to make that type of worthwhile financing go forward, but I don’t think we should give it away like candy. Once you start giving something away, everybody wants it. Free money is very attractive.

The premise behind downtown, for example, was we were doing this because it had been economically depressed for some time, and we needed to do something to make sure we filled those apartments, filled those storefronts. At some point, your stimulus of an area takes hold, and now it’s time for developers to step up, and either build it or not build it depending on the value of their project. I think that government should be most careful in spending taxpayers’ money. They’re there to do a job. It’s not a candy store. Every dollar that they spend is a dollar that some family doesn’t have for something they need.

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?

Della Volpe: If this were the county budget and not the city budget, I would tell you the schools because I’m a great believer in keeping our schools healthy. Now, in the city we give money to the school system, but it’s a county budget. I think I would be really reluctant to reduce, for example, police and fire budgets because safety is a big part of what government does for you that you can’t do for yourself, so I think that’s important. The first step you do is belt-tightening, including in those operations, but at some point I don’t think you compromise safety or fire protection. I would want to sit down with whoever is running the department and find out what else they can do.

Now we’ve been doing a couple of things already. The first thing we’ve been doing is not to fill some job slots that have become open. The second thing is we’ve tried to operate more efficiently, between use of information systems, and the mayor’s three-year plan of paying a little more for workers who are more productive. Those are helping. Those are obviously things he learned for being a businessman. You award productivity, and, gosh, everyone’s going for productivity.

I would expect the mayor and the City Council to look at everything possible to cut back costs because if the city is hurting because taxes are down, that probably means people are hurting because their incomes are down. You can’t just reach into somebody’s pocket and pull out more money. Is there a circumstance where we’d have to do something to keep our city healthy and moving forward? Yes. If I were called upon to do that, would I do that? If after gathering all the facts, that was the only option, I would exercise it. I would try to act in the best interest of the community even if it was unpopular.

What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?

Della Volpe: Again, I would have to look at a specific example. I spent the better part of ten years as the board member of the Public Assembly Facilities Board for things like Chilhowee Park and the Civic Coliseum. One of the things we were charged with was to decide what was needed for the community. Things like the Civic Auditorium don’t make money for the city. In a well-managed year, they break even, but we looked at whether it was important to have some cultural diversity and some variety of entertainment so that our community was richer in the sense that Knoxville is a desirable place to live.

As to whose pocket it comes out of, I’d have to look at it specifically. I can’t give you a carte blanche answer in either direction. I’ve been on people’s front door steps where they’ll be on either side of these issues. One person told me, “Look. I don’t want you to take a penny more of my money. If it’s a choice between a greenway or my having the money, I want the money.” Some people, the message was no more government. Of course, some other people said they wanted this cultural diversity. My view is fiscal responsibility. Don’t spend a penny you don’t need to spend. If you need to spend some money to better your community, by God, make a case for it and spend it.

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?

Della Volpe: I was thrilled to hear about this. You go out to Lonsdale, and you see what’s gone up where those projects used to be. You see the manicured lawns and the classic pride of home ownership, I think it tells you that it’s a healthier answer than jamming 200 families together, and you got the drug addict next door, and somebody upstairs who keeps you awake. Everybody loses the pride of ownership, and you make it hard to grow up right. I think that’s a great project. Those 50s, 60s housing projects maybe worked at a different time, but it doesn’t work now. We’re losing the next generation of kids by having them grow up in that environment.

I’d have to know more about the demand. I don’t know how to answer without those numbers, but I think if we can solve some of those problems in the Magnolia Corridor by giving people better homes, better hope, better future, we will greatly improve that area. 100 years ago in our city, that was one of our main arteries of our city. It’s the other half of Kingston Pike, for heaven’s sake.

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?

Della Volpe: I worked on that Magnolia Corridor plan. If we can get some investment in, we can start getting jobs. We can start getting new housing. There’s some gorgeous houses over there. Not only in Parkridge, but also on Linden Avenue and all those other areas. We can start to rejuvenate some of those inner city places. One of the things we were talking about today was about transportation and foot traffic. Why not kill two birds with one stone and put a 2 or 3 mile radius from the center city and find ways to improve foot passage and bike passage, so that people can look forward to homesteading a home in Park Ridge like they have in Fourth and Gill, and taking a bike to work or walking when it’s nice. If we give those places kind of an edge in terms of convenience, they ought to be the more vibrant parts of the city instead of the neglected part.

The other thing that’s missing there—and obviously this wasn’t a city matter—was to get a regional high school in that northeast sector instead of putting these new schools out in West Knox County. We need people to locate based on their desire to be in a place, so they won’t relocate based on education. We should have a great school in the Old City area, and people will want to homestead over there. Then we fix these problems with private money. We won’t have to have the city come in and deal with as many of these problems as a city.

Other than that, we need to do what we can to reduce criminal activity in that area. We need to be smarter about engaging the community, get people doing community watch, engaging with police. We have to change the mindset there. Add a little hope to the process. You go and talk to people in that community, and the first thing they tell you is we need to reduce crime.

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?

Della Volpe: Let me add a third thing. I can’t imagine a harder decision a young woman has to make if she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t want a child or can’t afford a child. Why do we want that person in a back alley with some quack and a coat hanger? That’s just stupid to me. I’d rather someone in that situation not do something desperate. I think it’s important to make that kind of service available. We don’t need a neon sign that says “Abortions at noon,” or anything. What do you do with a child who’s not going to be raised well? He’ll have problems the rest of his life. Is that a smart decision? I understand that some people have very strong religious feelings, and I appreciate that, but we’re supposed to be a country where we have some amount of religious freedom.

The thing to do is see if you couldn’t have some public meetings, your classic kind of town hall, where you can go and air your views rationally. So, yes, I think we should do that.

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?

Della Volpe: Let me say that I think the current Council is a breath of fresh air compared to what it was before we had term limits. We had people there for 20, 25 years, who were good people, but they would come to the meetings and everything was a fait accompli. Everything was done. There wasn’t enough discussion. It was like, read the agenda, vote yes, and go home. Or read the agenda, vote no, and go home. I think there’s more debate. I think that’s healthy.

As to the current mayor, I think he’s been great. Fiscally, he’s managed this city well. Are there things I wish he’d done different? Sure. But I don’t know if government is anything but some sort of compromise. Would I go against the mayor’s wishes, whether it’s the current one or a different one? I’m not going to be anyone lap dog. I’m going to talk to the constituents and find out what they want. I’m going to deliberate carefully. I’m probably going to have more time to put into it than the average guy out there, as far as reading the paperwork and the law. I’m the kind of guy who makes his decisions based on his conscience rather than this kind of thing. Whether it’s the mayor, the governor, or the pope, I don’t care. I’m voting for the taxpayers.

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?

Della Volpe: I haven’t seen a specific written proposal or analysis. I’m sympathetic to it. The ridgetops are precious. If we waste or destroy our scenic surroundings, it will damage the quality of life in our community. I’ve sort of been waging a little—I don’t want to call it a battle—but a review of a proposed landfill on Delrose that is 90 to 100 feet above the ridgeline, and that sort of bugs me. We’ve asked for a public hearing from TDEC to review it.

I’m going to have to give you a qualified answer because I haven’t seen any specifics. One of my platform things is rational development. That’s why we do planning with MPC, and I would be in favor of requiring developers to develop their plans in a way that doesn’t destroy the ridges for the general enjoyment of our residents. If it causes them to have to modify or restrict their plans, I don’t have a problem with requiring that in an ordinance. Twenty years ago, I went before the MPC and said that we should require every developer who develops a large tract of land to leave an acre or two, and let the community develop it later, maybe as a softball field for the kids. And I was told that was sort of Communism, we can’t make them.

I know some developers say, “It’s my land. I can rape it if I want to.” We have zoning laws for a number of things. You can’t have hog lots in the middle of downtown areas because the smell would affect the neighbors. That’s sort of the essence of nuisance laws.

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