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Town Council candidates field questions at MBA forum

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Candidates for Signal Mountain Town Council take part in a forum at the Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club. Photo by Jennifer Bardoner

Six candidates seeking three seats on Signal Mountain Town Council in the Nov. 2 election further expressed their platforms during a forum sponsored by the Mountain Business Association at Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club Oct. 10.

At the conclusion of the candidate forum a straw poll was held to allow the attendees to show their support for their top three choices among the six individuals running. A total of 101 ballots were turned in from the crowd of approximately 150 people.

The results from the non-scientific, non-binding straw poll had Bill Wallace as the recipient of the most support with a total of 72 votes, followed by a tie between Jason Bowling and Frank Preston, who each garnered 65 votes. Dick Gee was next with 31 votes, followed by Susan Robertson with 27 and Jeremy Rardin with 9.

The following is a compilation of their responses to questions submitted through the MBA during Sunday’s event.

Audio clip

Signal Mountain Golf Country Club Forum

The town is currently under a sewer moratorium preventing any new residential or commercial development to connect to sewers. Will you work with WWTA to accelerate the process to eliminate the moratorium as soon as possible?

Wallace: I think [WWTA is] working and moving quickly as they can, but really the town can’t go forward until the moratorium is lifted. It’s been estimated at anywhere from 12 -18 months before that can happen.

Robertson: We have been working with the WWTA since the beginning, before the moratorium, during the moratorium, and hopefully post-moratorium. We’ve actually had a good number of projects going forward. We have new businesses. We’ve had 14 building permits every year during the moratorium … for lots that have already been sewered, so we’re still growing. [The moratorium] will be lifted as soon as possible.

Rardin: I fully support lifting the sewer moratorium. I would definitely investigate it further. I’m with many of you, I would like to see it lifted so we can progress this town both residentially and commercially.

Preston: The town, I think, is ready to move forward with development. Residential development is limited, to say the least, until the moratorium is lifted. Yes, it needs to be lifted as soon as possible. I think it’s there for the right reasons. It was a mess. It’s being cleaned up. I think when it’s cleaned up the state will release us.

Bowling: Absolutely the sewer moratorium is a priority for this community. The only way to accelerate the release of the sewer moratorium is to work with WWTA, so yes, I would make it a priority to work with WWTA. It is my understanding … one year is about the best hope to do that at this point. The concern I have is there’s not a lot of data to back that up. I think as a town council representative, one thing I could do when seated is gather that data, collect it and make sure that we can wrap this up in one year and that one year from now we’re not still sitting here talking about it.

Gee: Water quality may be the most important thing we can talk about tonight. I like the idea of working toward the problem, but I don’t necessarily assume we’re going to speed through it because that’s what we want so badly. I guess what I’d rather do is make sure we’re doing the right thing, because the wrong thing is what’s been done far too long in terms of water on Signal Mountain. I would support a tenacious effort to clean the water and then talk about lifting the moratorium.

During the previous forum at Alexian many of you mentioned that you hoped taxes wouldn’t increase during the next four years. Currently revenues are flat and operating expenses are increasing. The Town Council has considered a new public works building, renovations to town hall, a new fire station and more sidewalks while promoting a no growth agenda. Where do you expect to get the revenues to pay for these changes without raising taxes?

Robertson: Right now we’re looking pretty good. We’ve got a substantial fund balance. We’ve been below budget this year, last year, and the year before. We do hope to conclude the annexation of Fox Run and Windtree. That will certainly pay for the new fire station eventually. The public works facility … we’ve got land, we’ve been discussing how and where to pay for it. We’ve got a really good group of grant writers in this town. Even though [grants] are competitive, we’re doing very well, so there are ways to get things done in a timely fashion without raising taxes, inappropriately for sure.

Rardin: Before any taxes should be raised, the government should examine its own spending and find ways it can cut its expenditures and have a little extra money. If the annexation goes through it will increase our property tax income. Before any taxes are to be raised I think we need to have public forums to explain to residents this is why we need that money, show them some numbers on paper, ask them for ideas, and hopefully avoid that if at all possible.

Preston: Running the town is a big business with a lot of expense. There may be ways to look at other ways to cut the budget and not raise taxes. Outsourcing might be one way and certainly grants. I think we have to continue to look at what we’re doing now before we ever discuss raising taxes. The current council and town manager have done a remarkable job managing our business.

Bowling: There’s no question about it, the costs to operate the town of Signal Mountain will continue to increase. The research I’ve done has shown over the short term the annexation of Fox Run and Windtree will cost us more money than the money it will deliver back in increased revenue. I don’t think grants are enough to cover that expense. I believe it’s entirely possible to maintain our small town character and grow the tax base in diverse ways, both through business, through residential development, through government taking a close look at where the town spends money.

Gee: I believe taxes are a quality of life issue. Quality of life is what we all decide among ourselves and collectively. Costs are going to go up. I just got my insurance bill, it went up. I just got my gas bill, it went up. I can’t imagine we could adopt the policy that we’re not going to fund absolute costs to fund the quality of life we desire, so I believe taxes more than likely will have to go up at some point in time. I’m sorry about that.

Wallace: There are two ways to kind of get at this issue: either increase revenues, or cut expenses, or some combination of the two. I think somehow for the town to work smarter … when it comes to expense control and revenue opportunities, and to somehow make it easier for new businesses to do business in the town of Signal Mountain, I think, is one way to begin to generate some revenue. The other thing is to support the businesses up here. I’d be very cautious, to think through any kind of grant opportunity. A lot of grants are for startup projects. Once you start it up and running you have to pay the expenses. I don’t think we want the town getting involved in grants that are going to incur some kind of operating expense down the road.

Some officials consider grants to be free money. Many of the town’s current improvement projects are funded with grant money. What is your opinion of using grant funds for the operation of the town and do you believe plans should be in place to insure necessary funding is available to cover the future maintenance expenses that could be associated with grant-funded initiatives?

Rardin: Grant money is not free money. It does take time, staff, labor to write grants. The way I feel about it is if you don’t get it somebody else is. I don’t see any reason why we should not go after as many grants as possible. If we don’t go after grants, we can’t maintain this town with our current revenues. That would ultimately lead to a property tax increase, because that money would have to come in from somewhere. It’s hard to project 20 years down the road where we’ll be financially, but I do agree, yes, we need a savings account. If we install a sidewalk, yes, we should definitely look further down the road to maintain it and have the money to maintain it. It’s very hard to project things like that.

Preston: Grants are an important part of the process, and, I think, something we should continue to look at. Most of the grants I think the town is getting are 80 percent grant and 20 percent paid by the town. That’s a good deal, a really good deal. I don’t think it’s realistic to say we’re going to set aside money today to pay for something 20 years from now. That would come out of the budgets 20 years from now.

Straw Poll Results

Bill Wallace 72

Jason Bowling 65

Frank Preston 65

Dick Gee 31

Susan Robertson 27

Jeremy Rardin 9

From a total of 101 ballots

Bowling: Grants are absolutely not free money. Grants always come with obligations in one form or another, whether that be the 20 percent cost Frank referred to or opportunity costs to having resources dedicated to writing grants on the front end. I believe grants are appropriate when the project funded is consistent with the strategic view of the town, as opposed to just going after grant money for grant money. I don’t think it’s impossible to predict total cost of ownership when investments are made. It’s what I do for Shaw Industries every day. You don’t have to set aside money today in the budget, but you have to plan for that operating expense in the future and assume it will be there.

Gee: [Grant money] comes from you and me. It’s not a question that it’s free money at all. The more grants are written, the more we pay. It is a bit of a game; if you don’t go after a grant, somebody else will. I think you have two costs: operational and project or capital costs. I support grants for project costs. Generally these don’t require follow-up costs or budget to deal with. But I absolutely do not agree with grants for operational costs. To me it is a dereliction of responsibility to pay our own way. If we’ve established the quality of life we want to live with in Signal Mountain, then we’re obligated, in my opinion, to pay for that, not with somebody else’s, our money.

Wallace: I think each grant has to be thought through. I imagine whatever fees they collect at the [town] swimming pool [which will be repaired using a grant] contributes to the operation of the swimming pool, so it seems like that grant and repair to the swimming pool will sustain itself over the years without any additional cost to the town. As far as having plans in place, I think we need to approach it as a lot of those are … startup money, and who’s going to pay for it?

Robertson: I think grants are a terrific way to get a return from the tax dollars we pay. All of us pay for it all over the country. So much is given to the state of Tennessee and the federal government, and [grants are] our return for what we pay in taxes to others outside our town. We know when we apply for these grants whether it’s going to be 50/50, 80/20, 90/10. They are one-time grants. Our operating budget pays for maintenance costs, and it’s done a very good job of it. [Emergencies like the MACC roof and raccoons] are really important, and grant money is good.

Some local business owners have expressed frustration stemming from dealings with the Town Council, the Design Review Commission and other town officials citing unclear guidelines and a lack of business support. Do you believe the Town Council should be active in working with the business community to address issues and what do you think needs to be done to improve the local business climate?

Preston: I spent the last few weeks visiting businesses on the mountain … and this is one theme that comes from almost every one: they’re concerned about the support they’re getting from the town and the frustration they have of trying to start a business or to change something about their business. I think the town, as far as new business coming in, must develop a guide to hand to business owners that will outline what they need to do to get their business started. As I understand it, it’s not clear now. I think someone from the town could and should sit down with business owners and walk through with them what they need to do, what the standards are, so we’re working together to get them to where they’re going to be.

Bowling: My opinion based on conversations with many of you MBA members is that what we need to do is remove some of the risk from the town’s ordinances and resolutions that exist today as they relate to small-business owners. I’m talking about clarifying some of the resolutions and ordinances we have in place today so they’re easier to understand and so there’s not multiple interpretations to some of that. I think the role of the town council as it relates here is, we have many committees work together for the town. What the town council needs to do is work together to better manage these to remove personal bias from executing town business.

Gee: I think the sense of the town council has been, at least from my experience on the [Signal Mountain] Playhouse board, that it’s a we and them relationship, or an us vs. them relationship. I think we all work much better, are more productive, and create more goodwill when we work together than when we work against one another. As a town council member I would try to reach out … to try to find ways to work together to achieve common goals for the greater good rather than have separate and independent goals, one for the town and one for the independent businessman.

Wallace: From the business folks I’ve talked to in the last few weeks, I came away with a very clear impression the town has kind of taken the position ‘here’s what you can’t do’ rather than ‘how can we help you do?’ My question has always been … is anybody reaching out to somebody who wants to locate here to make it happen?

Robertson: One thing I think we all have to keep in mind is all our committees and commissions are made up volunteers … who have full-time jobs and other lives and have agreed to come together once a month to try to contribute to the town. We’d asked [the Design Review Commission] for a rewrite of the design ordinance and the sign ordinance because they dated to 1979, they were muddy and contradictory. Together we’ve been working with [land use planning company Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing and Watson], [planner] Karen Rennich, the Regional Planning Agency, Honna [Rogers, town manager] to make the DRC user-friendly for every business and also the town. If the town is going to assign standards for signage in the community, we should also follow the same regulations in permitting signs to business. We have a new application going into process.

Rardin: I promise you business owners, as vice chairman on the DRC, we’re trying as hard as we can to pound out that new sign ordinance and rewrite the design review guidelines. I personally have started a new business packet that when someone comes to this mountain to start a business, they will be handed this packet. It is an illustration with lines pointing to everything that has to come before the DRC, when it’s due, and before anything proceeds forward it has to come to us. The KCRW report is something we’ve also been working extremely hard on. I welcome everyone to come [to our meetings]. Input is greatly appreciated at those meetings.

Have you read the existing land-use plan for the town, the Coulter Rushing development recommendations and the Randall Arendt conservation planning suggestions? Would you support a town policy that requires all council members to read all town planning documents? In general, what is your position on residential and commercial growth within the town?

Bowling: With all the reading I’ve done I have not read the 133-page land-use plan in its entirety. I can’t imagine it’s possible to sit on a town council and not review these documents in their entirety. I would intend to do so and certainly support doing so if seated. I absolutely am a supporter of managed, responsible development both on the commercial side and the residential side. I’m a firm believer our small-town character can be maintained in an environment where we promote development, both commercial and residential, and I would work hard to pull it all together.

Gee: I have read that report. I think the real question is do I support residential and business development going forward. I do support the development of what we call the Shackleford Ridge area but, there’s a big but at the end of that question, there’s got to be a lot of planning and discussion about what goes on before that development occurs. I think we’ve got to deal with issues of transportation, security, traffic management among others, that have to not only be simply discussed, but really planned, and properly planned and laid out so not only can development occur in an orderly fashion, but so citizens can occupy that area and have it be reasonable and consistent with what the town has today.

Wallace: According to the town’s website, the mission statement of the town of Signal Mountain is “to provide open government, high-quality services, effectively use resources, and sustainability through managed growth as well as to foster community involvement, innovation and opportunity while preserving small-town character.” I support that wholeheartedly. The key to this is ‘managed.’ Yes, I absolutely support residential and commercial development. Once [the sewer moratorium] is lifted and that property becomes available for development, the fun is going to start. How the town manages its way through what opportunities there are to develop the property out Shackleford Ridge is going to be interesting and it’s going to be a lot of detail.

Robertson: Not only have I read the land-use plan, I helped write some of it. Our planning commission talked to many folks, small towns and investigated and used these ideas. Essentially what they do is promote green neighborhoods and less sprawl than anything else. We need to work together as a community, because it’s the community who decides how much it wants to grow, not planners, not developers, and not me. For businesses, I think essentially a good business will always do well. The town has 7,000 people; it can only sustain so much. Look at Signal Mountain Athletic Club. That came about even during the moratorium. We need sustainable development, which means we need to have our infrastructure in place and we need to be thinking long-term for businesses and residential.

Rardin: I’ve read the land-use plan. I’ve helped with the KCRW report. I’ve begun to read the subdivision regulations. I don’t think we should squeeze as many houses as we possibly can into a tract of land. The main body of the subdivision regulations were taken from [conservation planner] Randall Arendt’s recommendations. However, the problem was he doesn’t take into account the current infrastructure, whether the land is flat or mountainous. Something about residential development we have to think of is our school and our children. The school will most likely be at full capacity next year. Do we want to do a disservice to our children by building as quickly as possible, flooding our schools, and hurting their learning experience in this wonderful school people move up here specifically for?

Preston: I’ve reviewed the plans, not studied them in great detail. They are very comprehensive and appear to be very good. As the sewer moratorium is lifted we will have more residential development. As we have more residential development we’ll have more commercial development because the residents will need more things. I think we need to remember we live in a very unique, beautiful, residential community on top of a mountain. As we develop that we want to be very careful. We want to plan it very carefully so we can maintain the character of this mountain.

The Signal Mountain Golf & Country Club lease is based on the tax value of the land. Mayor Bill Lusk has advocated for increasing the basis for the lease when it is up for renewal. Do you support or oppose increasing the amount the club pays to the town for its lease? The original lease agreements were for 50-year terms that allowed the club to make long-range plans. If elected would you support negotiation for a longer-term lease with the town?

Gee: I don’t know because I don’t know precisely what the terms of the lease arrangement are and what negotiations have occurred so far and what the discussions have been between the mayor and the country club. At this point I have no reason to believe any change needs to be made. If elected and the issue were put in front of me and I had the opportunity to study it, then I would have to form my opinion based on that kind of analysis instead of what I currently know.

Wallace: Last fiscal year the club paid $57,254 in rent to the town and spent $52,095 on water. If the town were to have a longer lease with the club it would give, I believe, the club the opportunity to invest more of its own money in enhancing what’s going on over here at the club. To be able to negotiate a longer-term lease is going to just make the country club a bigger amenity to the town. If you go to town’s website, the country club is listed as one of the amenities to the town. I think it would be a good thing.

Robertson: The way the lease is written right now it doesn’t expire until 2016 [after being extended for another 20-year term in 1996]. What [the club] pays in rental is equivalent to what the average property owner pays in residential property taxes based on assessed value property it stands on and zoned low-density residential. There is no question the country club is an asset to the town. It’s awesome, like a huge park in the middle of town. Whether you belong or not you still get to run and romp and play. I support it wholeheartedly. What’s going to happen in 2016, I don’t know. I don’t know what the financial needs of the club are.

Rardin: I love this country club. It is a great asset to this community. It draws in a lot of residents up here who are fairly well off that help contribute to our taxes. We need to continue to attract those people up here. I’d like to see the numbers for the country club and the numbers for the town. I’d like to get the club together, get the council together to reach a common goal and see why the lease amount would need to go up and maybe we could work to a common goal that the town could cut something and the club could remain at its regular yearly lease.

Preston: I have not seen the lease the country club has with the town and really can’t answer the question very well because I don’t know the specifics. It’s critical that the town and the country club sit down together and work together. We don’t have to be on two sides of the table. We’re all trying to make this community better. The club is absolutely a wonderful asset to the community. There’s no reason why the two groups cannot sit down and work through whatever the situation may be; if it means changing the lease, then sit down and work though it.

Bowling: I think it’s important that beyond the $109,000 Bill referenced earlier, the club is also the second-largest employer in the town of Signal Mountain and contributes heavily back to the tax base in that context. I think SMGCC has been an incredible steward of the land it’s leased from the town for a long time now. It’s an attraction, it’s beautiful, it brings people to the town. They’ve been a good partner with the community … [like with] the Fourth of July picnic and Labor Day barbecue. I’m in favor of a long-term lease. I think it makes sense for both for the town and the club to allow both sides of that agreement to make long-term plans and to continue to sustain the community exactly as it is going forward.

Data has shown that the population in the town is decreasing. What do you believe is causing the population to decrease and what do you believe can be done to spark growth?

Wallace: The numbers are a little squirrely. What I don’t know is if they’re moving to the county, Chattanooga or China. We could have people moving out of the town limits of Signal Mountain and still taking advantage of all the benefits of living in the town of Signal Mountain. I think the biggest thing to attract people to the mountain is to offer more diversity and choices in residential development. I think there are a lot of opportunities to develop more diversity in residential setup. Westfield is a very attractive market to people who aren’t ready to go to Alexian. Right now we can’t do something like Westfield.

Robertson: I guess the question to ask is, first of all, is growth good? How much growth can we sustain? The main thing is is [the growth] going to be better? Growth doesn’t have to be by numbers, it can be by quality and all sorts of things. It’s for the citizens to decide. Until the moratorium is up and we have more input we don’t know that. I don’t see a lot of empty houses standing around for very long despite the economy. I think we have a healthy, growing neighborhood. I do think we need another Westfield, maybe two or three. The population across the U.S. is aging and we need to accommodate them.

Rardin: I don’t see anything in the land-use plan that shows a decrease in the population up here. In fact, many of my friends are just itching to get up here as soon as they’re out of their leases in downtown Chattanooga. That’s something I’d like to explore, why people are moving off the mountain.

Preston: I think it’s normal in a residential community for there to be some movement. People change jobs, transfer. I think probably our mountain is stable as far as growth. We may not be growing a lot because we can’t. We’ll still have growth in that regard. As far as new homes and bringing a lot of people up here, that’s not going to happen until we get the moratorium lifted and the sewers are free to run.

Bowling: The size of the town of Signal Mountain is decreasing. The tax base is decreasing in the town of Signal Mountain, part of that is in response to a lower return on investment for our fund, but a small part of that is due to a decrease in population. I believe the cost of doing business in the town of Signal Mountain will continue to escalate. If in fact we continue to decline in terms of the size of our tax base, taxes will go up to sustain the community we know and love today. I think the necessary steps are to complete the subdivision regulations and to work with WWTA so that we can establish managed growth plans that are consistent with respect to the small-town character we all appreciate and love.

Gee: I can’t explain the numbers. I know statisticians can make numbers say a lot of things we don’t understand. I don’t know if that’s the case in this particular case. However, my [Signal Crest] church is building a $2.5 million expansion based on demographic studies that show there is going to be future growth on Signal Mountain, not dramatically high growth, but growth nonetheless. The Church of Christ just finished an expansion. Signal Mountain Methodist Church just made tremendous addition to their building. They read the same data that we do. They expect growth. There’s a little building called SMMHS. I can’t imagine that’s there without the expectation of future growth.

In the current economy property values, thus property taxes, are declining and new home construction in the town is very limited. Some small towns, such as neighboring Walden, do not operate their own public works departments and instead contract services like road work and garbage collection. How do you believe the town can best offer necessary services while restraining or reducing taxes?

Robertson: We have cut the budget. We have an outstanding town manager who our council hired. We’re working well within our budget. We were able to put $375,000 on the school note this past year as well as contribute to our general fund. You just get by in this economy day by day and do the best you can. I think our citizens want services. That’s why they’re in the town. Walden pays 54 cents a dollar property taxes; we pay $1.76; 19 cents of that goes to pay down the school debt, which is still $4.2 million. When that is phased out … maybe there can be a small tax increase that doesn’t eat up 19 percent. If you want services you live in town. If you don’t care, you go to Walden or the county.

Rardin: The first place we should look is ourselves, the government, to see how we’re spending money there. Maybe we can cut costs and won’t have to go up on taxes. I don’t want to go up on anybody’s taxes. The more grants we apply for the longer we can hold that off.

Preston: I think it’s certainly possible to do that [outsource] but you need to be very careful and be sure you’re still going to be effective, it’s still economical, and it makes sense. For example, I think our town outsources paving. It makes no sense for us to buy paving equipment when you can contract it and have it done. Public works is something I think is extremely efficient on Signal Mountain. I think we certainly could look at it but it would probably be very hard to find a contracted service that can be as efficient and economical as the public works we have.

Bowling: The answer to this is good management. Good management is fiscal responsibility. It’s constantly evaluating the options, whether that’s in-source or outsource, on a regular and diligent basis. It’s looking closely at total cost of ownership both up front and downstream for every decision we as a town make to understand the importance of that as it relates to future operating costs for delivering the services we as a town decide we would like to pursue.

Gee: The services change as the financial situation changes. I think we’re looking at a very difficult, tough time for the next few years. I think we’re going to have to look at finances, revenue and services, and we’re really going to have to pick and choose what we want as the quality of life on Signal Mountain.

Wallace: Outsourcing, I think, is certainly an alternative that should be explored when it comes to city services. It’s always been interesting to me when governments find themselves in this position of having to reduce costs while still providing the same service, that they can find private businesses who can not only provide the services more efficiently but then the private business can actually make money doing it. If we owe $4.2 million left on that school note, taxes should come down. That tax goes away. It shouldn’t be thought of, if you’re used to paying it now, then you’ll just continue to keep paying it for something else. I don’t think a tax increase works that way.

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