On Wednesday, Sept. 2 early voting began for this year's City Council district primaries; 14 candidates are competing for the nominations in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th Districts. Our Sept. 10 print edition features (edited) interviews with the three candidates from District 2. In our Sept 17 issue, leading up to election day on Sept. 22, we will be running the District 6 Q&As. (Since District 4 and 1 candidates are going straight to the general election, we'll be posting those only online.)
Read the full candidate interviews at our complete 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.
District 4 Candidates:
Ray Abbas, 35, works as the employment coordinator for the Salvation Army. A Knoxville native, Abbas grew up in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood. He is a graduate of Fulton High School and the president of the Fulton Alumni Association. He has a bachelor's degree in academic psychology from UT. Over the past 11 years, Abbas has worked in the employment placement field, helping to open one of Knoxville's first career centers.
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.
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?
Abbas: I would be in support of repealing the current law that is on the books. When the ordinance was being constructed, one of the initial topics was that there be alternatives to it. One of the alternatives proposed was that there was a green space that was supposed to be constructed on the side of the building there at KARM. That has yet to happen, and that does not have a timeline, as far as I know, to happen. So, that is one issue. We cannot criminalize homelessness, but we can work toward alternatives other than the sidewalk but also ensure access to the services we provide. I mean services that the Volunteer Ministry Center provides to assist them with housing. The alternatives will allow us to succeed at the ultimate objective, which includes promoting economic development in Downtown and Downtown North.
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?
Abbas: I don't have any specific areas in the city in mind, but I do believe that the only way we can succeed with the Ten Year Plan is to demonstrate that we can—economically and geographically—place permanent supportive housing throughout the city and the county. This Ten Year Plan was an agreement, a partnership, with the county.
I think, speaking to the question as to what to do about neighborhood concern, I think some things need to happen in order to try to avoid what some of what we experienced with Flenniken. One, that the Ten Year Plan Office needs to do a more adequate job in communicating the objectives and ultimate results that we want from the plan. I think that one of the questions you hear from these neighborhoods is, "Why us?" as if it's a punishment. "Burden" should not be a word we use in discussing the homeless. I think if you worked with the homeless, you'd be less likely to use the word "burden."
Ultimately, we have to do what is legally right. However, I also believe that it's both morally right and it's cost-effective to continue to support permanent supportive housing. Every study you examine will show that it's cost-effective to provide permanent supportive housing for the homeless because otherwise, you are utilizing city resources—police, fire, what have you—in order to care for the homeless. I believe that it is the body—the council and the Ten Year Plan Office—it's their responsibility to disseminate this information. And I believe, if done well, we'll eventually reach a tipping point where you won't see the firestorm.
Della Volpe: 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.
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. 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.
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. 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'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?
Abbas: I believe the PILOTs and the TIFs were intended to help economic development and residential development in areas that are struggling. And I think that we've gotten away from that somewhat. We need to get back to the original intention of these programs, which were intended to encourage rational, responsible growth. I feel like the TIFs and the PILOT programs are tools in the toolbox in order for the city to strengthen itself. However, in areas that have maybe reached that tipping point, some of these decisions have been unwise.
Della Volpe: 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.
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?
Abbas: I think that if at any point, we looked at any cuts in police or fire protection, then we might have to look at a tax increase. Aside from that, I think that there are small, incremental ways in which we can be more cost-effective and look for ways we can save money that would occur before a tax increase.
Della Volpe: 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.
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?
Abbas: I don't know that they would be worth a tax increase at a time when we're in a serious bind. As we've been good stewards of our money, we do have a reserve. We have to be very careful with hypotheticals, but in an example where you're describing a real serious situation where the economic downturn continues for many more quarters—a rainy day—I wouldn't be opposed to going into the rainy day fund to keep our essential services where they are. I think, though, the debate becomes about which services are essential services. The amounts of money contributed to the public grants, for example, may fall into that type of debate.
Della Volpe: 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?
Abbas: I am in favor of the eventual demolition of Walter P. and the eventual completion of a HOPE VI project there. To me what outweighs that concern about the number of units is that those well versed in economic development in East Knoxville believe very strongly that continuing the status quo of Walter P. has been the downfall of development there. The Five Points development that essentially failed in its original form was attributed somewhat to the current status of Walter P. I do believe the best you can do is replace one unit per unit. But, I believe that this, if done well as it was in Mechanicsville, can be the catalyst for economic development in East Knoxville.
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.
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?
Abbas: Absolutely, it's a good sign. As for the second question, we must as a city, be more pro-active in dealing with the chronic problem properties, the vacant lots. I believe the number thrown out was, I think, 31 percent of the properties up and down Magnolia are either partly vacant buildings or empty lots. We must be more pro-active in order to reverse that. East Knoxville is one quarter of the city. It's east, west, north, and south. There's no quarter of the city that should be neglected. We ought to be just as pro-active with East Knoxville as we are with Downtown North, the South Waterfront, the plan for Cumberland. We have to be just as pro-active in all quarters of the city. This is a very good start. I would have liked to see this come about earlier, but this is a start.
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.
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?
Abbas: I think that if the opportunity presented itself, as it appears it did, I'm not opposed to the city taking the role of mediator. There's no legislative role there, but certainly some mediation, just like the city might do if it wasn't such a controversial item.
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?
Abbas: I was struck by this question when it was asked as well. And I believe that's an individual Council members issue. I think that some have no problem whatsoever, expressing their opinion, whether it's in line with the mayor or not. Councilman Becker proposed adding $1 million out of the fund balance to add to the HOPE VI grant because he felt so strongly we needed it. He knew it wasn't going anywhere, but he did it anyway.
I think if that question was asked, which it was, and if the public feels that way, then they need to keep that in the forefront of their minds as they're deciding who their new Council members will be. They need to pick people whose commitment and whose loyalty is to their constituents, the people of the city of Knoxville, and not to any mayor. I stress the word "any." This is not a referendum on Mayor Haslam.
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.
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?
Abbas: I've seen their presentation. And yes, I would be committed to adopting fair ordinances that balance conservation and development. My initial impression is that we may have to look at reducing density on some projects in order to achieve that balance.
Della Volpe: 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.