A Final Lightning Round for Our Knox County Mayoral Hopefuls

With early voting under way and the Aug. 5 election coming soon (though not soon enough for anyone tired of watching our Republican gubernatorial candidates trip over each other in a Tea Party panderfest), don't forget that Knox County's own executive office is also up for grabs. It's true that most of the media, including Metro Pulse, has acted like the election is a done deal ever since state Sen. Tim Burchett won the Republican primary in May. There's a good reason for this: It is a done deal, however much that might grate on democratic-process purists. It is almost impossible to imagine what sequence of events would have to transpire to somehow grace the underfunded, little-known Democratic challenger—the Rev. Ezra Maize—with victory. (There is also an independent candidate on the ballot, Robert Bedwell, whose entire campaign as far as we can tell began and ended with filing his petition to run.)

Still, in the interests of encouraging other underfunded, little-known candidates to serve as major-party placeholders in future elections, we thought it was worth a last visit with both Burchett and Maize. But we didn't want to ask them the same old questions about county budgets and restoring trust and so on and so forth that they've been answering since sometime last winter. So we appealed to our readers for suggestions via our Facebook page and also via the Knox Blab message board. Then we threw a few of our own into the mix, and presented the questions to each candidate in separate interviews. The results suggest a few things: Anyone hoping for a new downtown library might as well start wishing for a pony, too; our air pollution problems are probably not going to get solved at the county level; and there is a partisan divide when it comes to movies about sweaty, half-naked men in close combat.

What can or should be done to update, expand, or relocate the main downtown library?

Maize: I believe before we update or relocate or even try to update, I believe that we need to really review our finances. And I'm all for the upkeep of the county libraries, but before we make any move, we need to review our budget to see what finances we have available or what we can pull from to do so.

Burchett: First of all, right now during a recession is not the time to think building a new structure. We need to re-evaluate what we have. We've got these branches that allow folks, seniors, and children, to get to. And downtown is just not as accessible. I think we need to shore up what we have. I do not see a new downtown branch in the near foreseeable future. I think you look at foot traffic of actual people that are actually checking out books and using periodicals and things like that, and I think that's how you make the decision.

The city provides a lot of basic services to city residents, but city residents still pay county taxes. What will you do specifically to promote or protect the interests of city residents?

Burchett: I've lived in the city my entire life, up until now. And of course that's within the county. You're going to use the schools, of course, and law enforcement has an overlap there, too. I don't see that being a problem at all. I think some of the frustration comes in the overlap of, you pay your city property taxes 100 feet away from paying your county property taxes. There's a duplication there, there should be some effort to move towards putting those services under one roof. I think that's some of the dissatisfaction people have.

Maize: I know that there have been a lot of complaints about those who live in the city paying county taxes. I do know there has been a complaint among the citizens. I would make sure that whatever takes place within the county that the city residents are actively involved in the decision-making.

Will you sign county contracts with corporate entities that are unwilling to disclose their ownership?

Maize: No.

Burchett: I tried to pass legislation dealing with that. I don't know if it's even legal for me to do that. In some instances, there might be where they need privacy, or we could ask the press to embargo something so they can get the option on a piece of land—because you find out Volkswagen's coming in, and then the price goes through the roof, and they're going to go someplace else. But that would be a rare instance. But no, I wouldn't. Frank Niceley and I sponsored that bill, matter of fact that was my idea. Frank'll tell you that. But he was the one that caught all the heat for it. And I was like, "Man, I was wantin' to catch heat for that." I thought the public should know. Because you always hear people say, "Well, we've got this amount of money invested out there." And it's not we, it's us. It's the taxpayers. I think we need to remind some of these officeholders who pays their salary.

Do you think the county should re-examine its funding for the Chamber? Would you ask for more openness or accountability of the Chamber in return?

Burchett: Absolutely. There is a penny [on the tax rate] of the taxpayers' money going [to the Chamber], we'd better have complete transparency. A lot of people don't even realize the investment they're making. I've let it be known that I'm not happy about that. They know.

Maize: That's a good question, and I'll tell you why it's such a good question, because I've not specifically taken notice of its funding for the Chamber. So I want to leave it there.

Do you support the plan for an East Knox County business park on the Midway Road property?

Maize: I do not.

Burchett: Never say never, but I don't like what has preceded that. Eight million dollars of the taxpayers' money invested out there right now, eight to 10 million, something like that. Something's going to happen out there, but it would have been better for the community if they had some input on the front end instead of being told afterwards. Realize, too, I don't have a vote in that. The public needs to know that, too. I can express my concern, and I have expressed my concern over the entire process. But I think what we need to do is regroup and talk to the community about, yes, we know something's going to happen here. Just letting it be a field, is that the best use for that property?

I've often found in Knox County that homeowners' groups and generally landowners are very cooperative if they are brought in on the front end instead of at the ribbon-cutting of some new structure which may or may not be detrimental to their property values or their way of life. People move out to the country and live in the country because that's where they want to live. They don't want to run into their neighbor as they walk out their back door into somebody else's front door. And too, we have areas that are brownfields that we can get tax credits for developing. They're not owned by people on the inside track, but they're properties that are available that we ought to look at—that have infrastructure in place. And is the best use of prime farmland to pave it? I don't know. It's just something we really need to address. And those are questions that need to be asked on the front end. There's a lot of land out there that, because it doesn't have a "For Sale" sign on it or isn't owned by an influential person, isn't being considered.

Do you think the county and/or school system need to sell off some of their property inventory (i.e. underutilized buildings or buildings that could be better used for private development)? Any in particular?

Burchett: I think generally governments are very poor stewards of their property. And historical structures that need attention. Obviously, old Knoxville High School. And I think, too—and I've said this before, and they don't like it—but the Andrew Johnson Building. Is that the best use for that? We're laying off 19 teachers, and you've got one of the most valuable, historically significant properties on Gay Street. Elvis stayed there. Hank Williams Sr. probably died there. We had presidents stay there. And wonderful things are happening downtown and in that whole area, the synergy is incredible—in this economy, the prices they're getting. It seems to me that that could be some kind of mixed use. As condos, that could really be some valuable use. And back on the tax roll. Even if it was a break-even proposition; right now it's not creating any tax revenue. And I would prefer that we look at some of these schools that we have in some of these other neighborhoods that are falling down, boarded up. The Sears building, is that the best use for that? Central Avenue, it's starting to develop, you can really feel the energy down there.

You have to look at, is there any possibility that property we sell could be a new school in the next five or 10 years? That's something you've got to evaluate. But for government to fix up these old buildings, it would cost more than it would just to tear it down. And a private developer could understand the historical significance of it and keep it as a traditional part of the neighborhood. I know a lot of people in the school system don't like that, when I say those things. But go back to our priorities. We've got 40 percent of our fifth-graders are reading below grade level.

Maize: I can't speak of the school system itself because of course school system is a separate entity from the county itself. Once the money is released, that would be a decision that the board of education alone has to make. Do I think there are some properties here within the county that we can sell? Yes.

Do you support the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness? Does it need to be amended in any way?

Maize: I do support the Ten-Year Plan to end homelessness, but I do believe we are behind time, we have fallen behind our timeline. And I do think that it needs to be re-evaluated to see what we can do, pretty much to catch up to meet our goals. I would first sit down with the citizens of the county and get a feel of the direction they would like to go, because I'm sure all the citizens of the county would like to deal with the problem of homelessness.

Burchett: I think they need to go back and realize that the homeless problem is a mental-health issue. And until we address it from that angle, first and foremost, I don't think it will have the success rate that it should. People need to understand that. The people that are in charge of [the Ten-Year Plan] are wonderful people, they're doing God's work. They really are. One of my closest friends suffers from a mental health issue, and I've dealt with the issue in Nashville, I've championed it. I've tried to embarrass the Republicans and the Democrats on it. We've had shootings in Knoxville, unnecessary deaths. Sheriff Jones will tell you, he's the first one to tell you, "We're not qualified and we're not trained to address this issue." And they're not funded to, either. They've got these archaic rules on the books they have to follow, and we're not addressing it.

In the housing component, you've got to address the NIMBY—not in my backyard—up front. You need to get with these homeowners' groups and tell them what you're trying to accomplish. These are good people in these communities, and they can help you. There might be an area that they can see it fitting in that, in government, we didn't even consider. And it might be cheaper. It doesn't have to be the highest end of the real estate spectrum, or the lowest either.

As large portions of the county are perpetually in EPA non-attainment status, what steps will you take to address the air quality issues in the county?

Burchett: First, you have to encourage carpooling. And the county of course, their vehicles—we're going to look at this and see if people really need to have all these vehicles out there, county employees. Long term, we can look at things. But you've got to realize, too, we are geographically disadvantaged. We're in a bowl, and we've got 40 and 75 that run right through here. And that's where we're getting a lot of it. A large portion of that is folks that don't live in the bowl. I think the federal government needs to understand that, too. I guess we could close the interstates down, that would make some people happy, but the reality is when you couldn't get a head of lettuce, folks would be in a little bit of trouble.

Maize: The air quality issues in the county. Well, that was a question that came up on a panel not long ago...air quality issues. Well, everybody is moving to what we call a go-green environment, so I believe if we promote—and I know Atlanta is really strong on that—if we promote a go-green environment, probably the simplest answer I can give, if we promote a go-green environment I believe it would improve the quality of air. If that's the question you're asking.

How many years will it be before Tennessee defeats Alabama in football again?

Maize: (Laughs.) I hope we do it this year.

Burchett: Two.

Do you like movies about gladiators?

Burchett: No.

Maize: Uh, I do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how crazy is Stacey Campfield?

Maize: (Laughs.) On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm just going to go with Campfield is a nice guy.

Burchett: Depends if there's a full moon or not. m