Knox County Strategic Vision: Knoxville Chamber v. Sidewalk Master Plan

As the campaign goes on, I’m constantly running across new things that concern me about our County government. I discovered recently that the Jacobs administration, as soon as the Mayor came into office in 2018, cancelled a contract for a Sidewalk Master Plan for Knox County. I’ve also discovered that Knox County helps fund the Knoxville Chamber’s Innovation Valley every year, to the tune of anywhere from $250,000 to $400,000 annually.

It was just happy coincidence that I learned about this Innovation Valley thing. I’ve been attending the Commission meetings every month because I think if you want that job, you should learn about it as much as possible. At the working session a week ago, they talked about an extra $200,000 going to the Knoxville Chamber for its strategic vision. Since I had just read about the canceled contract for the Sidewalk Master Plan and the amounts were similar, it struck me as an interesting comparison of priorities, or lack thereof. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me, so I wrote about the issue on the ol’ campaign website here.

But, let’s be honest, I get about 20 views a day here at fro4knox4 dot com (see also todd frommeyer dot com). I thought I should try to express my opinion in a larger forum. So, I signed up to speak in the Public Forum section of the Commission’s regular meeting last night. I was first up and did my thing. It made no difference, since the Commissioners approved the money in their consent agenda – “the ayes have it,” with no roll call vote. I was glad I could do it. The Commissioners were there and the Mayor was in the room and I spoke my peace. Just another citizen speaking his mind.

In the future, maybe I’ll be up on that dais. You know, if I get enough votes to win in August. I can assure you, my vote will be different on an issue like this.

Also, I’ll be keeping an eye on this issue. We’re getting near to budget season and I suspect the Knoxville Chamber’s Innovation Valley is going to get another $400,000 from Knox County in the Mayor’s budget. I suspect I might want to speak again at Public Forum on this issue.

In case you’re interested, I’m including the text of what I said last night. It might be worth your while, since there’s info in there that I didn’t include in my previous post on the subject. Yes, I did read it. Speakers at Public Forum have a 5 minute time limit and I didn’t want to stumble through my points and not get everything in. As it was, I read at a pretty quick pace and only had about 15 seconds left.

Maybe tl;dr, but here you go anyway:

Public Forum speech

Mr. Chairman. Commissioners. Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

I was doing research on another matter and I came across an article in the Compass. It said that, in May 2018, the Commission had approved a contract in the amount of $265,000 for a Sidewalk Master Plan for Knox County to identify priorities and long range improvements.

In the Fall of that year, shortly after Mayor Jacobs came into office, Knox County Government canceled the contract. According to the Compass article, Jim Snowden, the county’s senior director of engineering and public works, said the $265,000 that had been budgeted for the study would be spent instead on sidewalk construction.

Fast forward to last week, I attended the Commission’s working session and noticed the resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Nystrom and Mayor Jacobs, to approve an appropriation in the amount of $200,000 from the General Fund Balance to the Knoxville Chamber in support of their new strategic vision. Based on a vote of the Commission, the resolution was added to the consent part of today’s meeting and Chairman Nystrom offered the opportunity to all of the Commissioners to be co-sponsors of the resolution. Which you all apparently agreed to.

The next day I learned more about this appropriation from the Compass in their daily email. It noted that the fellow who spoke on that resolution was none other than the new Knoxville Chamber CEO, Mike Odom. It looks like the money is earmarked for Innovation Valley, which is, as you know, a regional economic development partnership. It appears that Innovation Valley was slated to get $400,000 in the budget, but the Mayor cut this amount in half until he got to see the direction of the Chamber’s new leadership. Now this $200,000 from the resolution is to get Innovation Valley back up to the originally planned $400,000.

At that point, the thought comes to my head that it’s curious that the Mayor and the Commission think that $200,000 of taxpayer money is a good idea and warranted to fund the strategic vision of Innovation valley, but not a good idea or warranted for developing a strategic vision for sidewalks and walkability in Knox County.

Then I did a little more digging. I wanted to look into the question of why any money is going to Innovation Valley. And why so much? So I looked at previous budgets. I found that, in the 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 budgets, Innovation valley got $250,000 annually from Knox County. In 2016-17, they got $300,000. In 2017-18, they got $350,000. In 2018-19, it went up to $400,000. Then last year it went back down to $200,000. Except, here we have the Commission approving this extra $200,000 to get them back up to $400,000 for the current year.

At this point, I will give the caveat that I understand the budgeting process is complicated. And I grant that comparing these annual Innovation Valley appropriations every year, ranging from $250,000 to $400,000 is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison when looking at the one time contract for a Sidewalk master plan, even though the amounts are very similar.

But, the more I have looked into this, the more I think the County government’s priorities are…off. I think this points to a troubling pattern with this Mayor’s focus on rewarding business and development in Knox County, at the expense of ordinary citizens. I disagree with this focus. I believe a sidewalk master plan is no less important to the county than the strategic vision of the Knoxville Chamber. If I’m being honest, I probably think it’s more important.

I believe this is the case if you compare the cancelled $265,000 contract for the sidewalk master plan to the $200,000 appropriation that the Commission is going to approve today. It is especially the case if you look at the fact that the contract would have been a one time expenditure of $265,000 and that the County has sent over $2 million dollars to Innovation Valley over the last 7 years.

This is a matter of spending taxpayer money wisely. It’s about where your priorities lie in spending that money.

I found it interesting how Mr. Odom was questioned about the Chamber’s accountability and its transparency. According to the Compass, the Knoxville Chamber’s board approved this new strategic vision in December. It appears that the Mayor and the Commission have seen this strategic vision. But it won’t be publicly rolled out until April. That’s not a lot of transparency to my mind. On the part of the Chamber or this Commission.

I think most people would agree that $200,000 is a lot of money. I’ve chosen to compare this appropriation to the canceled contract from 2018, because I think it shows how the Jacobs administration has its priorities wrong. I mean, according to Mr. Snowden, the County could build about 3000 feet of sidewalks for that amount. I doubt there are too many people out there who wouldn’t love to see some more sidewalks in the county.

But really you can pick a lot of items from the budget and say the same thing. I’d like to see the Commission take seriously the idea of transparency in how taxpayer money is spent. I know this resolution is on the consent agenda. I’m asking the Commission to take this item off the consent agenda. Don’t approve these additional funds to Innovation Valley without some explanation for why this additional $200,000 is being spent now and what it’s being spent for.

Published by Todd Frommeyer for Knox County Commission

Retired Air Force JAG, former Navy Russian linguist, former consumer financial regulator, political junkie

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