PF candidates: Weighing in on city projects, finances
The Mountain Press asked the City Commission candidates about their assessment of the city’s finances. Candidates were also asked about their feelings toward specific city projects, as well as what kinds of transportation and infrastructure improvements should be made.
Topics focused on debt, the Tourism Development Zone (TDZ), the Island development, the forthcoming LeConte Center, the new wastewater treatment plant, Wear Farm City Park, the trolley system and traffic flow improvements.
The following is a summary of the candidates’ responses, listed in alphabetical order by last name:
Brackins feels that the debt on the wastewater treatment plant will be paid over a period of time because “the water and sewer is self-supporting.”
“I want to see that plant completed,” she said. “I feel like it should’ve been done a few years back. I look forward to the baseball field if that comes about, and the LeConte Center, the impact it will have on our business people and residents with employment and bringing people into town, and just growth in general.”
Brackins said she thinks the TDZ is good for the city.
“Sometimes you wish it could cover more area, but you’ve got to pick and choose the boundaries of it,” she said. “It’s something I think will be more beneficial in the future. I’m hoping with more business growth we have in those areas it will help.”
Brackins said all the work done for the Island developers, like zoning ordinance changes and a roadway, was necessary.
“It was something that needed to be done in order for them to develop it in a way that the people can have a way to come and go,” she said. “I think it was important and it will be beneficial.”
Brackins believes the Jake Thomas Road connection to Veterans Boulevard will be beneficial, and she thinks the city is moving in the right direction with its various projects.
In a prepared response to a Pigeon Forge Hospitality questionnaire given to each candidate, Davis said he understands the city must spend money to promote itself, “but it needs to be done efficiently and without the appearance of impropriety.”
Davis said he is apprehensive of the TDZ for two reasons.
“A former Sevierville alderman who I have the deepest respect for has told me in detail how this is going to erode the tax base in the future and it will be one of the biggest mistakes Pigeon Forge has ever done,” Davis said in his survey response. “... Secondly, I have firsthand knowledge of how some back-room deals by city officials have already used the TDZ to their personal benefit...”
Davis also questioned the integrity of the deals involving the Island development.
“Why did city management pay $17.5 million for the 35 acres of the Teaster parking lot land that they had appraised at $7.5 million? Doesn’t the law prevent government from paying more for land than it’s appraised for? Why was there no public discussion on this purchase price?”
Denney said that if he were a rating agency, he would give the city an A+ for finances.
“I think the finances as far as income are good,” he said. “The State of the City message that Mayor (David) Wear gave a while back indicated that last year’s gross revenue was $900 million. That’s a lot of money. I think with that amount of money, that’s perhaps more than adequate to allow for the debt we have. I know we have some bond issues, but that’s one thing I would approach, make sure we have a balanced budget and make sure we have the resources to address it.”
Denney likes the trolley system, but he acknowledged more work could be done with transportation.
“The problem is that those trolley drivers have to contend with construction,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s possible to widen any streets, but these turn lanes we have are a great thing. It’s one of those things we need to address. We need to resolve our transportation gridlocks, keep an eye on infrastructure and keep traffic lights adjusted.”
Denney believes the Island is a unique development that required unique attention from the city.
“There was so much uncertainty there about what the final entity would be, but it seems now to be pretty well settled,” he said. “I think it was a tough negotiation between the developers and the city, but the way it turned out, I think it’s a win-win situation. It’s a good investment for the city and a good draw for the community.”
McClure acknowledged that the city does have debt, but said the real question is whether it can pay it off.
“The answer is that here with our TDZ, we have a near perfect bond rating, our wastewater treatment plant is going to be paid for out of water rate, so our fund balance is very efficient,” he said. “... If the TDZ grows like it’s supposed to, you’ll be able to relieve your debt service on that. The key to paying off debt is positive growth of the city and the TDZ.”
McClure is in favor of the same road projects as the other candidates. “I would like to see us complete the west side connector ... and the Jake Thomas connector is important, too.”
As far as the Island, McClure noted that the city has worked with businesses in the past to take care of their needs.
“We’ve worked with developers in the past., like Dollywood. We did red lights and all kinds of infrastructure for them,” he said. “I don’t want to make it sound like the Island developers are the only ones who ever got anything because that’s not true. We gave up a certain amount of money for the road, and it did give us another entrance into the events center. I think the zoning they asked for was more of a signage issue. It’s within the TDZ, right by events center.”
McClure believes the city is moving in the right direction and has put many tough issues behind it.
Ogle said some of the city’s major community investments have increased the bond debt, but he believes it can be paid off with current revenues.
“We’ve got the LeConte Center, the wastewater treatment plant and Wear Farm City Park, as well as community infrastructure improvements,” he said. “There have been water and sewer projects that have been completed and those have been necessary to support the wastewater treatment plant. The upside is the city is now poised for exciting new growth and opportunities.”
Ogle also supports the usual transportation projects.
“We always need to look at smarter ways of moving folks in and out of city,” he said. “And then the new connector from the Parkway to Dollywood will be a good thing for the future of the city’s development.”
Ogle said some of the zoning concessions to the Island development were necessary to get it off the ground.
“Those were necessary to get it to where we see it today. Going forward it is going to be successful, and that’s something the city needs, a successful project on the city’s tax rolls. There can be a role for city funds in economic development, but it’s important to keep it balanced and reasonable.”
Robinson was concerned about the city’s spending, saying it’s “out of control.”
“I think we’re way over-spending. Our water bills have gone up 113 percent lately. Our property tax has gone up probably 80 percent. And something I see is we have approximately $8 million in payment next year that we’ve never had. It could be a tremendous burden on businesses and residents if we don’t manage our money correctly.”
Robinson is in favor of the wastewater treatment plant and Wear Farm City Park. “The LeConte Center also has great possibilities, but I don’t like the way it was proposed. There were some private people who seemed to get money that I don’t think should’ve been part of that.”
Robinson said it’s great to have a TDZ to “recoup money from the state to develop in that zone, but I don’t like the fact of having a $250 million credit card. I think we have to be cautious with that option of spending.”
In Robinson’s opinion, the Island developers got too much help from the city. “All of our bignesses deserve help, but in this situation is a $40 million parking lot they are getting free. The other businesses didn’t get a free parking lot.”
Robinson also said the Parkway and the trolley system could use improvements.
“I’ve heard people say they’ll never come back and fight the traffic,” he said. “We need an eyelet where the trolley can pull on and off the road. That would really help with the traffic flow.”