Rogero's City Budget Includes Some Interesting Capital Improvement Projects

When Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero announced her proposed budget two weeks ago, all anyone could talk about was her property-tax increase. The 34-cent tax increase is the second-highest proposed increase in the city's history (the highest was Bill Haslam's 10 years ago), and it seems largely due to the city's growing pension liability.

But some numbers in Rogero's proposed budget—which hasn't yet been formally adopted by City Council—caught our eye: Knoxville Area Transit reduced the amount of city funds it receives by about $1 million; Marble Alley improvements will cost $50,000 more than the city's previously agreed upon contribution of $800,000 to the redevelopment of the Walter P. Taylor Homes and the Dr. Lee L. Williams Senior Complex (the city pledged $8 million to those projects over 10 years in 2012); public restrooms on Market Square are budgeted to cost $250,000; the city's first public-art fund will get an initial investment of $230,000; and, while KPD will get more than $3 million from the capital projects fund, the Knoxville Fire Department is allotted a total of $500,000 for renovations to a single station and a training facility.

So what does all that mean?

KAT was able to reduce its city funding by $1 million thanks to grants it recently received. Both the federal and state governments fund public transportation, and Melissa Roberson, KAT's chief administrative officer says the amount of state funding given to fixed-route public transit systems (like KAT) is based on census data. This year the state Department of Transportation was able to increase the amount of funds given to KAT by about $1 million (from $2,050,754 last year, to $3,113,898 this year, Roberson says), which allowed the city to reduce its contribution without affecting service. Transit funding can easily change from year to year, so the city's contribution to KAT may go up again in the future.

At the city's budget retreat in February, the mayor included a presentation on public infrastructure in need of some upgrades. Rogero did, in fact, highlight the need to improve streets and sidewalks around the upcoming Marble Alley Lofts that will be on the land surrounded by State Street, Commerce Avenue, Union Avenue, and South Central Street. The retreat presentation called for upgraded sidewalks with more trees and ornamental lighting, and to re-stripe State Street to make it a two-way road. In March City Council approved $650,000 to install or improve sidewalks on the streets directly adjacent to the lofts, and add in trees and lighting. In Rogero's budget, she requested an additional $850,000 to finish the sidewalks on the opposite sides of the streets, and extending along State Street from Commerce Ave to Summit Hill Drive.

Bob Whetsel, the director of redevelopment for the city, admits $1.5 million is a steep price tag for sidewalk, but that the large development (which includes more than 200 apartment units) will eventually bring in more revenue for the city in the form of new residents, and more downtown economic activity. It's also assumed there could eventually be retail stores on the ground floor of the development.

"North Gay Street [streetscaping] was $500,000. It's not cheap," Whetsel says, referring to the streetscape project on the 400 and 500 blocks of North Gay Street, which got similar upgrades to its sidewalks.

That's in addition to the $30 million in private investment in the lofts, which are being developed by Buzz Goss, and Knox County's 10-year PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) financing plan for the project, which will result in the city receiving payments of $42,516 every year.

Meanwhile, the KCDC-led Five Points revitalization project, which involves demolishing the old Williams Senior Complex and the Walter P. Taylor Homes and building single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and smaller apartment buildings in their places as funding becomes available, has an ultimate estimated budget of $85 million for the entire project. The city has pledged $8 million over 10 years, so each year it designates $800,000 to the project. KCDC relies on state and federal grants to fund the rest of the project, which is estimated to take 10 to 12 years to complete. In January, KCDC executive director Alvin Nance said he wouldn't know until the summer whether the project would secure state tax credit funding to begin building a new senior housing apartment building.

"In local government you're always balancing competing interests," Whetsel says. "A major focus of this administration was to make sure we have a downtown success. We think this project [Marble Alley] leads to that, and we want to continue our success down there. Part of doing that is creating the kind of environment on the street that people are pleased with."

Another infrastructure project that's been greatly needed since festivals began drawing big crowds to downtown is public bathrooms near Market Square. And the timing was finally right to secure funding for them in the city's budget, says Rick Emmett, the city's downtown coordinator. That, and stores and restaurants downtown have begun to be inundated with people wanting to use their restrooms.

"They're really bearing the brunt of all the trouble that's causing them," he says.

Emmett says the estimated $250,000 price tag the city budgeted was based on the cost of building the "very nice looking" bathrooms that recently went in at Sequoyah Hills Park, which cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

"Given the complications of building anything downtown, we want to make sure we have enough to make it work. I hope it doesn't cost that much, but it very well could be," Emmett says. But "I don't know if you can do anything for less. Frankly, I thought that was pretty reasonable for the one they built in Sequoyah Hills. It's pretty much a standard for that size of facility."

Getting the facilities hooked up to have running water, proper sewage system connections, and electricity will probably take up the bulk of the project's budget, Emmett says.

The whole project is still "to be determined," but Emmett says he'd like to see a four-stall structure (two stalls for women, two stalls for men) visible, or at least near, Market Square, without being in the way.

"We'll be open to suggestions on that," he says.

He also says they'd probably be locked at midnight, like most of the bathrooms in public buildings downtown, to prevent any serious problems. Emmett speculates the city would hire a cleaning service to manage the facilities, but that, like the rest of the details, is still only a possibility.

Assuming City Council approves Rogero's budget, Emmett says construction on the bathrooms could start sometime this fall, though he says first it has to be designed and have the Downtown Design Review Board approve that design.

"We'll be pushing for it if we get the funding for it," Emmett says.

The city has supported the arts in the past with capital investments in art for places such as the convention center, and contributed some money for the purchase of the Alex Haley statue in Morningside Park. But, as city communications manager Eric Vreeland says, it's "unusual" for a budget to dedicate money to an art fund for purchasing public art.

A city-sponsored Public Arts Committee was formed back in 2008 after a task force on public art recommended it, and the committee partnered with Dogwood Arts this year to bring Albert Paley's "Envious Composure" statue to Knoxville this year. It's currently at the Cradle of Country Music Park at Gay Street and Summit Hill. Previously, the committee has been responsible for taking inventory of all the art the city owns, though when we wrote about this project last year ("The Artful Dodge" by Holly Hawood), the list of works the city has was incomplete, said then-committee chair Norman Magden.

Rogero requested $250,000 for the city's first public art fund, though it should be noted that $20,000 will be dedicated to an operating budget, and the capital investment will be $230,000. Vreeland added that the process is still in the early stages.

Liza Zenni, the executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville and current chair of the Public Arts Committee, says she's "delighted" by the city's formal designation of a public art fund. The committee has already formed a steering committee to find a suitable artist to start creating a work specifically for the Cradle of Country Music Park where the tall gold Paley statue currently sits. Zenni notes that most public art is commissioned and created specifically for a spot. "It's supposed to look like it was meant to be there," she says. "Public art has a way of communicating a zillion things in just one design … [and] it actually belongs to the people who live and work in that city."

She added that several cities dedicate 1 percent of budgets for certain building or land developments to public art for the site. But this set-up, she says, doesn't force art into projects and allows more freedom to choose sites that could use some art without having to depend on a development budget.

Zenni says the $20,000 operating budget is mostly to make sure the project doesn't stall because of administrative costs. The Public Arts Committee will have a public meeting in July to talk to the community about what it wants in the installation.

The budget retreat infrastructure presentation also highlighted several fire stations around the city that needed repairs. This year's proposed budget only designated $300,000 for repairs to Station 12 in Bearden. However, the city had a $10.4 million surplus at the end of last year, and in February, City Council approved $3.9 million of that surplus to be used to address the repair needs at stations in South Knoxville, Lonsdale, Fountain City, and on Asheville Highway.

Still, the discrepancy between the police department's $1.2 million for a police academy building and the $200,000 for the fire department's training academy is large. Vreeland says that's simply because the police department is further along in its building process. The $200,000 allotted for the fire training academy is merely for the planning of that facility.

The City Council approved the first reading of Rogero's budget at its last regular meeting on April 29. The body will hold hearings on the budget beginning May 21 before it can go on the Council's agenda for a second (and final) reading.