KINGSPORT — Election day is less than a month away and early voting begins this week. In Kingsport, two incumbents and three challengers are vying for three seats on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The candidates include Linda Buckles, John Clark, Colette George, Eric Kerney and Tom Parham. Mayor Dennis Phillips is facing Gary Lane for a fifth term in office. Election day is May 21; early voting begins in Blountville on May 1 and in Kingsport on May 9. Early voting ends May 16.
The Times-News recently asked all of the candidates a series of questions on some the major issues facing the city, including annexation, debt and education. Here are their answers.
Q. Tennessee cities annex property to provide urban services to areas of the county in the cities’ state-approved urban growth boundary. These annexations generally lead to increased economic development because they provide utilities and other services businesses need that are not provided by county governments. What is your philosophy on annexation? Do you support the one-year moratorium on annexation approved last week by the state legislature? Do you support Kingsport’s policy to continue annexations in the city’s state-approved urban growth boundary in the areas of Colonial Heights and Fall Creek?
• Phillips: Annexation is necessary to promote the growth of business and industry primarily because they will not locate in areas without the necessary infrastructure. As for residential areas, sewer is becoming more and more important as present and future environmental laws will cause septic tanks to become obsolete in many areas that are densely populated leaving no alternative other than city-provided sewer.
The present moratorium should cause little problem for Kingsport as it does not prohibit requested annexation or annexation of businesses and industrial sites. I do support the cities’ ability to annex within the urban growth area as this plan was well thought out and approved by cities, counties, and the state of Tennessee. It has been in effect for 13 years and now that it is being implemented some people are upset, as expected, however many are very pleased with the 50% reduction in water rates, garbage, brush and leaf pickup, police and fire services to name a few. The school situation is a work in progress and we all must take the correct action with our schools.
• Lane: I do not believe in annexation by ordinance. People have rights, and one of those rights should be if they want to be city residents or not. I don’t believe in strip or balloon annexation. Annexation should be done in a radius from city hall outward. Areas which are harder for development than the desirable areas should be factored in the annexation process. I support the one-year moratorium on annexation for common sense reasons, mainly because the city has not taken care of what they already have an obligation to maintain and provide. I don’t think one more square inch of property should be considered for annexation until ALL city services are provided and the infrastructure be improved inside the city limits of Kingsport.
• Buckles: In general, annexations are expensive, and they are not the only way to achieve economic growth. I have proposed having town hall events including officials from Kingsport, Sullivan County and Kingsport City Schools, local business owners, and recently annexed citizens to evaluate annexations, especially Kingsport’s financial ability to keep its promises to those being annexed.
If Kingsport is unable or unwilling to provide adequate city services on a reasonable timetable, we should rescind or postpone annexations until a later date. I would also oppose future annexations if they do not appear to be fiscally prudent. It is irresponsible to authorize expensive annexations when we do not have the resources to meet our obligations. Annexations have costs as well as benefits, but right now, we need to make sure we can afford to update the Kingsport water system. Kingsport will ultimately attract 21st century jobs by smart budgets, low taxes, and cutting edge educational opportunities, not by expensive annexations and debt.
• Clark: Annexation is an important part of any city’s growth strategy and Kingsport is no different. The city is empowered by state statue to annex when deemed necessary by the BMA. Most city residents have been annexed at one time or another. Aldermen are responsible for representing the best interests of all citizens as well as addressing the city’s near term and future needs. Annexation secures the city’s future growth by providing a full range of city services to new real estate developments as well as to attract new residents and businesses to Kingsport. If we believe in continued growth, then annexations need to be part of the city’s growth plan. How the city prioritizes annexations and whether or not they’re affordable must be reviewed and analyzed before approvals are granted. Also, the city must deliver all promised city services in the required time line.
We should abide by the Tennessee Legislature’s approved measure for a one-year review of current annexation laws and practices unless annexations are requested by the residential, commercial or industrial property owners as provided in the legislation. The BMA should approve continued orderly annexations if the areas are neighborhoods and/or development areas in the city’s growth plan, the investments are affordable without raising taxes and within approved budget levels, and the city can provide all the services to annexed areas/residents in the required timeline.
• George: I firmly believe in smart growth for Kingsport. When annexations are proposed or requested there are many factors that influence decisions. One of the driving issues for the recent annexations has been the need for sewers in certain areas. Unfortunately, you cannot simply add sewers where needed — the lines must be run through other areas to get where they are needed. This requires planning. Additionally, water lines have to be upgraded simultaneously so fire protection can be provided. There are huge costs associated with annexation, however I believe it is the responsibility of the city to provide services to the people that need them in a fiscally responsible manner.
Regarding the one-year moratorium on annexations, as a member of the planning commission, I’m not aware of any major annexation being considered at this time. The city is on schedule to complete the plan of services for all the recently annexed areas. Perhaps a year off will give everyone time to work through some of the prevailing issues.
I believe that it is critical for future growth that city and county leaders work together. Before any annexation, the city verifies with the city school system that there is adequate space for every child that could be affected by the annexation. While most of these children choose to remain in their current schools, space must be assured. Some are homeschooled while some already attend city school. However, the city will not annex if there is not adequate room in our city school system.
Due to the older population and declining numbers of school-aged children, the county is currently facing some tough decisions regarding their school system. The county has elected commissioners, an elected superintendent and an elected school board. They have the information and will make decisions concerning county schools. The county leadership is in place to make these tough choices. After the county makes decisions on their schools, the city and county leaders should work together on effectively utilizing facilities to benefit our area and our children. Cooperation between leaders is vital for both organizations to best serve our community.
• Kerney: My philosophy on annexation is very simple: no annexation without a referendum. We do still live in a democracy and as such, the people in our communities should be allowed to decide where they live and where their children will attend school. By using the referendum alternative, the Kingsport BMA will have to truly listen to the wishes of those individuals they are attempting to annex. They will need to include these communities in their discussions on what’s best for the city as well as those that are being threatened with annexation. If the Kingsport BMA will let people know before they are annexed what the plan of action is for each community, i.e. schools, water and sewer, quality of life improvements, how these are to be funded, and the time frame involved for implementation, each community will have the proper information needed to make a decision at a referendum vote. Whether a community votes up or down to be annexed, it will bring an end to “taxation without representation” and allow a real choice to be made. The one-year moratorium, though watered down, will give communities the time to take a step back and decide what’s best for local residents.
• Parham: Cities generally provide much higher levels of service, in basic public safety such as police and fire services, in public works, including roads, water and sewer service, parks and other recreational opportunities, well-funded, quality schools, and by administering zoning regulations which ensure unwelcome property uses are not placed right next to your home. All of these factors result in demonstrably higher property values for home owners, with the home being the single most important asset most people have.
Throughout the country, the economic health and progress of a region is tied to the success of its cities, and cities do need room to grow. But this can only succeed by working closely with counties.
Our city, county and state leaders developed an agreed upon Smart Growth Plan for development and orderly growth more than 12 years ago. Now we all must be wise enough to solve the growth pains, such as the schools issues. We must come together and develop a long-range agreement concerning the regional schools, and remove uncertainty for all concerned.
I do believe Kingsport certainly has done many of the aspects of annexation well, providing new services on time and on budget, while keeping the property tax rate at the third-lowest rate in Kingsport’s history. Professional staff meet in advance of any annexation with impacted residents, and thoroughly detail what services will be provided and time lines for those services. City and county school administration as well as county commissioners are also part of the original notification and discussions.
At the same time, I am comfortable with the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to implement a one-year, partial moratorium that enables residential annexation by referendum or majority request. This requires excellent, up-front communication by the city, to explain the reasons, advantages, and costs for the proposed annexation. It does however slow the process and increase expense.
I have been personally involved, as a member of the Planning Commission and the BMA, with Kingsport’s efforts to better communicate with all homeowners affected by annexation. Given all of this, I think we are well positioned to move forward given the changing attitudes about annexation in the General Assembly.
Earlier this year, the BMA and Planning Commission had already decided to slow annexation as we provide the more capital intensive services, water and sewer, to those areas annexed over the past couple of years. I do support continuing to pursue annexation by request, particularly for those properties already served by city sewer and water services.