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Politics, taxes and high school football

From staff • Jul 31, 2018 at 8:51 AM

Politics, taxes and a perceived loss of identity. These are some of the biggest barriers to regionalism.

Listen to what these business and government leaders have to say about what could stall or stop the effort.

“The barriers are strictly political and trust.” — Former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips.

“Egos, politics. Complexities, desire to have our turn to do well on our own.” — Margaret Feierabend, Bristol, Tenn., mayor.

"All leaders do not truly believe in the benefit of a regional approach.” — John Campbell

“Local institutional structures are designed to support local, rather than regional, objectives.” — Jon Smith, Tri-Cities Airport Authority chairman and East Tennessee State University director of the Bureau of Business & Economics Research.

“Every community is naturally interested in protecting and growing what they have.” — Lottie Ryans, First Tennessee Development District director of Workforce and Literacy Initiatives.

The biggest barrier

Probably the biggest barrier, and one that folks in the private sector tend to overlook, “is the issue of taxation and government boundaries,” said Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership.

Cities and counties are under a lot of pressure “to succeed in business and talent attraction,” Walker said, because these promote population growth and increase tax revenue.

“Even though it might seem trivial to some, it is a very real and pertinent issue, and the public sector should not be blamed for this,” he said.

The area’s political boundaries create a built-in “headwind” to regionalism because elected leaders naturally take positions to protect their communities, Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said.

“That is totally reasonable and understandable,” Levine said. “When someone desires to be re-elected, they want to point to things important to local taxpayers. That’s what we should all want and expect, and personally, I would have it no other way. But it is also a barrier to a regional approach to growth.”

Growing, financially vibrant areas such as Charlotte, Nashville and Atlanta are made up of multiple cities and counties, but economically, they behave as metropolitan areas, according to Levine.

“The political boundaries remain, but the benefit to each community is that as the regions have grown, each of the politically drawn communities has prospered financially, their kids have remained and they have steady job markets,” he said. “We can do this here. It is proven to work.”

Local business leaders are working to establish a path for regionalism, Levine saie, and they want the support of political leaders.

“We need their help, but we also want them to know we respect their sworn responsibilities to their voters. We believe both needs can be met if we get past trying to protect institutions that create barriers between our communities,” he said.

About taxes

The cities and counties in the region each have budgetary responsibilities to their residents, said Ken Maness, a former Kingsport alderman who now serves on the Tri-Cities Airport Authority.

“While a new job brings widespread regional benefits, retail sales tax revenues are specific to geographic boundaries,” he said. “Absent ‘enterprise zones’ or other mechanisms for sharing of risk and reward, each government entity feels obligated to fight for its own tax base.”

Keith Wilson, a member of Ballad Health’s Board of Directors, said Tennessee’s site-based tax system for sales and property taxes, “results in unequal return on a common effort. Unless there’s a prior agreement on dividing the tax benefit of a successful recruiting effort (as NETWORKS has done in the past), then a political subdivision may not see any return on their investment.”

The state’s sales tax structure results in localities being pitted against each other, according to Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable.

“In a perfect world there would be none of these county lines and city lines. But that’s not what the state has designed. They have forced those lines on us, and therefore, forced us into competition,’ he said.

Kingsport Mayor John Clark also said the existing tax structure does not ensure that all participating cities and counties benefit from the successes from any one entity in the region.

“Putting in place an allocation scheme that would allow all entities to share in the revenue generated when a successful result occurs within the region would go a long way in having individual cities/counties support regionalism,” he said.

Wilson said if Tennessee changed its tax structure and all taxes were sent to the state then redistributed based on population and need rather than where they are collected, “you would see substantial changes in how cities and counties behaved.”

Miles Burdine and Bob Feathers of Kingsport’s Chamber of Commerce say the tax structure forces competition between local cities and counties, but this problem can be overcome.

“One idea to accomplish this goal is to have Sullivan and Washington counties merge together as one entity … this would make us the fifth largest county in the state and should automatically make us one MSA (metropolitan statistical area),” they said in their joint response to the Times News questions.

“It also benefits out tax structure and makes it easier to market our region, among many others.”

High school football

Is regionalism hard to accomplish because of resentments over who won the latest Dobyns-Bennett/Science Hill football game? Such high school rivalries are sometimes cited as the reason localities don’t get along.

“Sometimes even petty sports rivalries can creep in and cloud what should be objective cooperation,” Maness said.

Walker also cited these rivalries, but he said something else is likely to blame.

“Many times the narrative of ‘Friday Night Lights’ is discussed when speaking about leadership in neighboring communities having trouble getting along with each other. I like to think that leaders can set aside high school football scores for the advancement of our region,” he said.

“More likely, these ‘hard feelings’ stem from more serious disputes that still linger or from past ‘losses’ in recruitment.”

Local leaders stressed that good communication will be essential going forward, because getting buy-in from regional partners is essential.

“We all know that regionalism to some means ‘I may lose my job,’ so it again becomes prudent for local leaders to fully communicate and fulfill the true purpose of regionalism to assure folks that there is benefit at the end of the day,” said Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock.

What are the barriers to regionalism?

Richard Venable, Sullivan County mayor: “In a perfect world there would be none of these county lines and city lines. But that’s not what the state has designed. They have forced those lines on us, and therefore, forced us into competition.”

John Clark, Kingsport mayor: “With the current tax structure in existence, there is no process to ensure that all participating cities/counties benefit from the successes of any one entity in the region.”

Ken Maness, former Kingsport alderman who now serves on the Tri-Cities Airport Authority.: “Hurdles to regionalism include unwillingness to share or give up control or political influence. Sometimes, even petty sports rivalries can creep in and cloud what should be objective cooperation.”

Margaret Feierabend, Bristol, Tenn, mayor: “Egos, politics. Complexities, desire to have our turn to do well on our own.”

Gary Mabrey, Johnson City Chamber of Commerce president: “Attitude and approach can be barriers, thus we could be barriers based on our past and present ideas and thoughts regarding taking care of business.”

Alan Levine, Ballad Health CEO: “In some aspects, the political boundaries create a built-in headwind to all this, because the natural position for elected leaders to take is to protect their local community.”


Tomorrow we explore who should take the regionalism lead.

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