As expected, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen on a 4 to 3 vote approved the 2017 budget on first reading, which sets the property tax rate at its current level and approves the concept of a sanitation fee.
City Manager Jeff Fleming explained that on second reading of the budget in two weeks time, language would be added setting the sanitation fee amount along with the three-cent rollback in the property tax rate.
Voting for the new fee and rollback were Mayor John Clark, Alderman Tom Parham, Alderman Darrell Duncan and Alderwoman Michele Mitchell. Vice Mayor Mike McIntire, Alderwoman Colette George and Alderman Tommy Olterman opposed the funding plan.
The battle over the budget has basically boiled down to how the BMA would create a dedicated funding source for the One Kingsport initiatives. To do this city leaders proposed a $12.75 sanitation fee and a three-cent rollback of the property tax rate, which would essentially free up $1.3 million in the general fund for One Kingsport.
“One Kingsport...it's all about the future of Kingsport,” Clark told a well-attended BMA meeting Tuesday night.
One of the major problems facing the Model City is stagnant population growth, especially given how annexation by ordinance – the primary growth tool used by Kingsport over the past decade – is no longer on the table for Tennessee towns.
In light of this, Clark believes the best way Kingsport can address this issue is by creating a new investment strategy. And that's where the One Kingsport movement comes in.
“Kingsport had an investment strategy in 1999. We developed a game plan and started investing. It has paid off. But where do we go from here?” Clark said. “It's time for a new investment strategy, one that will take us to the next level.”
Last fall, hundreds of community, business and education leaders came together for a two-day summit, brainstorming ideas on a variety of fronts, from housing and job creation to downtown revitalization and arts and entertainment. These ideas were polished and expanded upon by volunteer work groups earlier this year, prioritized by a committee and presented to the BMA last month.
First year recommendations include beautification efforts, policy changes, master planning efforts and initial steps on bigger projects such as a large outdoor venue, upgrading Bays Mountain Park and creating maker-space downtown.
Clark said he believes if One Kingsport is implemented, the ideas would help make Kingsport a vibrant, 24/7 city, rather than an 8 to 5 commuter town.
“Forty-two cents a day,” Clark said is what the sanitation fee comes to. “If you have a hardship...it drops to $9 a month. For half the cost of a bottle of water or our local daily paper is what we're talking about.”
During public comments, one woman spoke of the impact a sanitation fee would have on her life.
“I really can't afford to pay for trash pick-up. I have one bag a week. My life is not like yours,” she said. “I feel like you don't have a clue as to how people live. It's a regressive tax that hurts poor people more.”
Downtown resident Mary McNabb said she was in the same financial situation as the woman, but that she has a different view on what residents would be getting for the garbage fee money.
“Thirty-two cents a day is not enough money for anyone to stress about,” McNabb said. “We need to do what we need to do and share the cost that will give us a true community.”
When the BMA got a chance to speak on the matter, the three dissenters spoke first, repeating some of the comments previously made on the proposed funding plan.
Olterman, who began his political career under then-Rep. Jimmy Quillen in 1975, said his boss taught him a few values that he still carries with him to this day.
“When we make a commitment to people, your word is your bond. We gave the people of Colonial Heights our word and I feel like we have an obligation to live up to that commitment,” Olterman said. “I'm not opposed to One Kingsport, but I personally feel this tax is not fair to the masses of the people.”
McIntire said he too feels some obligation for Kingsport to keep its word and believes the fee is regressive.
“It is certainly the same for everyone and more painful for folks who have less,” McIntire said.
George said a three-cent rollback in the property tax rate would benefit her personally.
“But, I'm strongly opposed to it,” George said. “I'm for One Kingsport but I feel this is an unfair way to pay for it.”
Parham told his fellow BMA members Kingsport is at a critical point with the choice being either to be a progressive, dynamic city or to remain stagnant. Mitchell encouraged people to reach out to nonprofit organizations that offer coaching for household budgeting, to see how a sanitation fee would fit into your life.
“We're losing our young professional, for different reasons and we need to improve our housing, we need to capture these people,” Duncan said. “We are at a very pivotal time, so we cannot vote for this or we can make a statement and say, on this day we changed.”