Show and Tell

Commissioners will tell you who they represent with vote

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

It isn't often that you can have one vote in a legislative body that makes it clear who elected officials actually represent. The Knox County Commission had such a vote set for its next regular meetingâ"but commissioners have delayed it at least 30 days because it was beginning to attract attention. They hope to take it up next month without your noticing, because they will be on record as either looking out for taxpayers or helping the developers who contribute to political campaigns. It is a defining moment.

The extracurricular activities of Knox County commissioners and Mayor Mike Ragsdale have drawn much-needed attention of late, but less attention has been paid to what commissioners are doing when they aren't attending a golf tournament or taking a fishing trip to the Bahamas. The Commission has always been friendly toward development and it has paid little attention to the effects of sprawl on two-lane county roads that have overtaxed services and overcrowded schools. But the current Commission is more developer-friendly than usual.

At some point the commissioners will be voting on a stormwater ordinance. This puts new regulations on developers outside the city limits of Knoxville to try to deal with flooding and satisfy state regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency. If you live in the city you should care because, for example, flooding in North Knox County leads to flooding in First Creek, and houses in your neighborhood are underwater. As others have noted, water doesn't recognize city limits.

The ordinance calls for concrete pipe in specific cases. If you build a road you plan to turn over to the county, as in a new subdivision, you should use concrete pipe under the road to carry off stormwater. Concrete pipe also supports the road and prevents its collapse. Developers want Commission to amend the ordinance to allow plastic or metal pipes to be used. Developers have many good reasons to oppose the ordinance. Concrete is more expensive. They also are using metal and plastic pipe to do the driveways in the subdivision, so they don't want to have to get concrete for roadways.

But concrete pipe lasts a long timeâ"plastic and metal pipe not so much. So if a road is to be maintained by the county in perpetuity, and you are a commissioner representing taxpayers, you require concrete pipe. If you are a commissioner who represents a handful of developers, and not the voters, then you will vote for an ordinance allowing plastic or metal pipe that taxpayers will have to eventually replace. It's that simple.

It isn't often you get such a simple up or down vote in which commissioners are able to declare whose interests are more important to them. Those who vote for the ordinance as written are looking out for constituents. Those who vote to amend the ordinance for a cheaper solution represent the developers that fund their campaigns.

Knoxville requires concrete pipe on any street it takes on for perpetual maintenance. It also requires, as does the county ordinance, concrete pipe carrying water from a retention pond or crossing another person's property.

You may recall the scene when a sinkhole developed in Papermill Plaza. A metal pipe carrying water under the parking lot rusted out. Once the stormwater pipe collapsed, the shopping center was flooded, because the water couldn't escape. It will cost an estimated $1.6 million to fix it. The metal pipe was installed before the city required concrete pipe.

If you want a cheaper plastic or metal pipe in the ditch under your driveway, then have at it. If you want developers to save some money doing that so your home-buying choice is cheaper, that's fine. If the metal pipe under your driveway rusts out and collapses, that's your problem. But the ordinance says the county road that runs into your subdivision will have concrete pipe under it so that it won't collapse, and the taxpayers won't have to pay for it.

A commissioner explained to me that the new ordinance is onerous to developers already, and the concrete pipe requirement is something that can be taken out to help them just get along and save them a few bucks. The few bucks they save will be paid by you down the roadâ"sooner or later.

There are any number of people running for County Commission next year, and they have some issues about nepotism, cronyism, Sunshine law violations. One would expect there will be a slate of people running on the theme of throw the bums out.

I would suggest they all go down and get an official record of the vote on the stormwater ordinance amendment. It is now set for the August meetingâ"unless it gets too hot. Commissioners may delay it again. But whenever they vote, it ought to be useful next year.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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