Knoxville in 2008: Livin' in the City and County

City Good, County Bad

This year's city budget was a work of fiscal perfection, conservative yet ambitious, earnest yet playful. The county budget, on the other hand, was irresponsible dreck. That is the narrative we've grown comfortable with around here, right? But let's admit that our interpretation of it may, in retrospect, have just a bit more to do with our (understandable) pre-existing problems with county government. Admittedly, there were more issues this year with the county budget than there were with the city budget. But last we checked, the city doesn't, for example, run a 50,000-student school system.

In fact, there are some striking similarities between the two adopted budgets this year. Both County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam's budgets were modestly up from last year's. Both included an across-the-board pay increase plan for employees. Neither raised taxes. As to that "massive" debt, it's still the lowest debt of Tennessee's three largest counties by more than half. And the county's S&P credit rating was upgraded from a AA to a AA+.

However, the city continues to invest in wide-reaching infrastructure improvements and ambitious development plans. Meanwhile, the county is in the midst of a hiring freeze and just cut hours at all libraries by 20 percent. Knox County Schools is projecting to finish the year out nearly $15 million in the hole. Ragsdale says that we can't even afford to pay for the feasibility study for a newly proposed sheriff's "intake center" (read: jail) downtown, let alone the $15 million it could take to build the thing. And new County Law Director Bill Lockett wasn't allowed to put a $40,000 pickup truck on the company tab. So there's that.

The Year of the Audit

The P-card scandal came to a neat middle in February, when an initial audit detailed $40,000 in poorly or undocumented purchases made by county employees in the mayor's office. Items included thousands of dollars in drinks, fancy dinners, and, in one case, $900 for a cruise. The final audit came in May, and Ragsdale and most of his staff agreed to pay back everything they couldn't back up, except for former Community Service Director Cynthia Finch, who, the county claimed, had over $9,000 in undocumented purchases. After she quit in February, the county froze her $14,000 in vacation pay in place of that money. Finch sued. The suit was settled earlier this month, and the county's been ordered to shell out $5,000 for her legal fees. Ragsdale's office has frozen all p-cards.

Then, of course, there was the audit of the mayor's hospitality fund, which collects private donations for county events, which he may or may not have used inappropriately. That's in the hands of the very expensive lawyers handling the investigation paid for, as always, with public dollars. Awesome.

And Then There's County Commission

There were some shake-ups on County Commission this year as a whopping 20 percent of registered voters elected five brand new commissioners—Amy Broyles, Finbarr Saunders, Mike Brown, Ed Shouse, and Brad Anders—in the August election. Voters also elected "Black Wednesday" appointees Sam McKenzie, Richard Briggs, and Dave Wright. And, in November, Richard "Bud" Armstrong won a special race to replace former 8th District Commissioner-turned-property assessor Phil Ballard.

As for the old guard, in October, County Commissioner Scott Moore was kicked out of office, following an ouster lawsuit filed against him and Commissioner Paul Pinkston. The suit alleged that they committed perjury during the 2007 Sunshine Law Suit when they denied they had violated the state Open Meetings Act. Pinkston was allowed to remain in office. Moore appealed, but this month, commission voted to seek his replacement.

It Almost Worked!

In response to the manifold embarrassments in county government over the last few years, an unlikely group of reformers, including several former officeholders and dozens of young volunteers, attempted to change the very shape of government on the county level—shrinking the size of County Commission by more than a third and reorganizing the county's executive branch to consolidate fee offices under the authority of the county mayor. After a law director who openly opposed the amendments rephrased the fee-offices proposal—voters were asked whether they wanted to "take away from the people the ability to vote for the County Trustee, County Clerk, and Register of Deeds"—it predictably lost in a landslide. The other initiative, to shrink the size of County Commission, passed, if narrowly. However, opponents are raising constitutional issues which promise to keep the matter in court, and in the news, for months to come.

Meanwhile, the City Ascends Into the Light

At the World's Fair Park Amphitheater, on Oct. 24, the mayor stood alongside representatives of TVA, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, the Department of Energy, KUB, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to hail Knoxville's designation as a Solar America City. It was raining, and there were multiple jokes about rain being auspicious in other cultures. (As often happens, the sun broke through the clouds when Southern Alliance for Clean Energy director Stephen Smith spoke.)

Solar America Cities is a two-year program, and Knoxville is one of 25 chosen cities. Most of them are places you'd expect: Sacramento, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., Orlando, Fla., Berkeley, Calif., San Diego, etc. The nearest other designee is Pittsburgh. Knoxville pitched a proposal promising high-profile solar projects and to take steps like education and networking to remove barriers to a solar-power infrastructure. In return, they'll receive a $200,000 reimbursement grant from DOE, $50,000 each year from TVA, and $200,000 worth of tech assistance from DOE.

The education has already begun, with workshops and online courses. Construction of the new Knoxville Transit Center is underway, and it will have a 4.8kw solar power system. A near-zero energy home will be made a part of the South Knoxville waterfront development, and tradesmen, policy-makers, and the public will have access to its innards as it goes up.

A Freeway Runs Through It

The downtown stretch of Interstate 40 closed for reconstruction as part of TDOT's long-range SmartFix 40 plan—and thanks either to superior preparation on the part of TDOT or the fact that it was never really as big a deal as people assumed, nothing happened. There hasn't been mass confusion or titanic traffic jams, as through traffic was rerouted via Interstate 640—and predictions of business catastrophe for downtown, cut off from the highway for the first time since the '50s, didn't come true, as business seemed to boom in spite of the loss of the interstate and the recession. So maybe we don't need the interstate, anyway. Several cities around the country, from Milwaukee to Oklahoma City, citing studies that interstates are often more hindrance than help to American downtowns, have abolished their downtown interstate links and replaced them with boulevards or parks. Nashville is reportedly considering it. Will Knoxville? No. We do what the big man says.