KINGSPORT — Kingsport residents got their first collective look at the five candidates running for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Thursday night. During a 45-minute forum at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, candidates faced questions on annexation, education, debt and economic development with the candidates being on the same page with most issues.
But there were a few notable differences, particularly with annexation and how the Model City should be spending its money.
Five candidates are running for three alderman seats in the May 21 city election: incumbents Tom Parham and John Clark and challengers Linda Buckles, Colette George and Eric Kerney. Mayor Dennis Phillips is squaring off against Gary Lane for a fifth term in office.
Only the aldermen participated in Thursday’s forum; Lane could not attend the event and Phillips only made a few comments prior to the questioning.
“Running is not easy and it’s a time-consuming thing,” Phillips said, noting Kingsport does not have any horrible people running for office.
All of the candidates spoke passionately about the future of Kingsport and how they each want to see the city be successful, to have a great educational system and for the city to continue working in attracting businesses and industry ... along with good-paying jobs.
“I feel strongly about the future of the city,” said Parham. “I want to promote job creation, education, quality of life initiatives and to integrate the citizens of the newly annexed areas.”
Parham said a healthy city means a healthy region and that reasonable growth and budgeting makes a municipality attractive. Debt is an investment, Parham said, pointing out Kingsport’s current debt level is less than 7 percent of its $1.6 billion assessed value.
“I see Kingsport as a destination for the entire region,” Parham said. Kingsport held an economic development summit in 1999, which various BMAs have used as a guide since then to promote such projects as the academic village, downtown redevelopment and the aquatic center.
“I think it’s time to have another summit to set our priorities,” Parham said.
Clark, appointed to the BMA last year, describes himself as a fiscal conservative who wants to minimize Kingsport’s debt as much as possible. At the same time, Clark said he sees the importance of fueling Kingsport’s growth with the funds available to it.
“The town is still in a growth mode and it’s imperative we fuel the opportunities within the city to continue to grow,” Clark said. “We need to match our debt policy to match the growth phase we’re in.”
Economic development and quality of life improvements cannot exist without the other and Kingsport needs to grow in an affordable way, Clark said, adding that annexation is an important part of the city’s growth strategy.
“We’ve all been annexed since we were incorporated as a city in 1917,” Clark said. “I support the city continuing growing and if it takes annexation (to do that), then I support it.”
Buckles, a retired school teacher and member of the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee, said a joint city/county task force should be created to evaluate annexation.
“If Kingsport is unable or unwilling to provide adequate services on a timeline, then (the annexation) should be postponed or rescinded to a later date,” Buckles said. “If it’s not fiscally feasible, then I would not support annexation. In general, annexation is expensive and is not the only way to achieve growth.”
Buckles said she supports economic development incentives that are fair and available to everyone and when Kingsport goes into debt the city looks at everything that goes along with it. Buckles added she supports SRO’s (school resource officers) in every school.
“I’m serious about Kingsport’s future,” Buckles said. “My vision is for smart budgets to prepare for long-term priorities.”
In order for Kingsport to grow and experience new economic development is for the city to have the best K-12 education as possible, George said, noting Kingsport City Schools is the most important aspect of economic development.
She said she believes Kingsport should use all available and reasonable incentives to encourage economic development, but to look at each incentive individually. As for Kingsport’s debt, the ratio is reasonable and healthy, she said.
“If everyone pays cash for a house, I would have a hard time doing my job,” George said. “In order for the city to grow, it has to incur debt. We’ve had a lot of catching up to do. Kingsport is in the business to provide services to its citizens and it’s the city’s responsibility to help its citizens if its affordable.”
Kerney is a lifelong Sullivan County resident and was recently annexed into the city, calling himself the representative of the outlying areas of Kingsport. Kerney said his vision is for the city to pay off long-term and short-term debt, to hopefully stop wasteful spending and cease annexations until a defined plan of action is implemented.
“By doing those things all of Kingsport can heal and come together, but until spending is under control, it’s not going to happen,” Kerney said. “We’re $220 million in debt. That’s $4,400 for every man, woman and child in Kingsport. Kingsport needs to grow at a rate it can afford.”
As for annexation, Kerney said none should take place without a referendum vote.
“We still live in a democracy and we should allow a device to where you live or not and what schools your children can attend,” Kerney said. “Whether you vote up or down, it will still bring an end to taxation without representation and allow a real choice by the citizens of Kingsport.”
The only question of the night where candidates had two minutes to answer, rather than the typical one, dealt with the relationship between the city and county regarding education and how their leadership would contribute to moving the relationship forward.
Kerney took issue with the premise and said he does not see much positive movement between the city and county.
“The community is in an uproar over annexation. The newly annexed taxpayers are paying for old problems,” Kerney said. “Both are part of one another and they need to start acting like it and end the petty feuds.”
George said she feels Sullivan County’s elected officials, in government and the school system, have the necessary leadership to make the hard choices to help solve the consolidation problem.
“They need to make the decision for their schools. I don’t feel, as a city, we should tell the county what to do,” George said.
Buckles said consolidation should happen where it makes sense and for community town hall meetings to be held with city, county and education officials as a good starting point.
“I do believe there is a lot of room for improvement with communication,” Clark said. “My management style is I really like to bring people together. We have two good school systems and if we can do anything, as a BMA, to facilitate between both sides, we should do that.”
Parham called consolidation the “big elephant in the room,” and one of the most important issues facing the community.
“My recommendation is for elected and business leaders and citizens to encourage school officials to develop a long range plan,” Parham said. “They are talking and getting along, but this needs to be a priority.”