State of the City

Alcoa to hold line on property taxes; makes plans for new high school

Education costs money and the more competitive the global economy becomes, the more expensive it is to educate the workforce.

That was one of the points made during a state of city address by Alcoa city manager Mark Johnson at the Blount Chamber on June 9.

“If we’re going to produce the education needed for us to survive and compete and survive as nation, it’s going to cost money,” Johnson said. “When you boil it down to what it costs per day, it’s really pennies. You’ve got to look at what the priorities are.”

Johnson said the elementary school was built in 1972 and is currently going through a major renovation. The middle school was built in 2005 for $5 million, he said.

“We’ve got a new high school in the preliminary planning stages. Tom Shamblin has done an outstanding job with how we can get the most bang for our buck,” he said.

There are close to 1,700 students in the system now. “Four years ago we had 1,300,” he said. “We provide an excellent K - 12 school system. They do an outstanding job in test scores.”

Johnson said having a good school system is good for attracting business. “We look at it as a marketing tool. I think they expect a state of the art high school. The price tag - I don’t know. It’s going to be expensive, like everything else. It’s too early to tell,” he said.

Regarding a new high school, Johnson said a new facility would be on the campus. “Right now they’re into space requirements. We’d like to see it to where it adjoins the new gymnasium and doesn’t interfere with the gymnasium,” he said.

Schools director Tom Shamblin said the idea would be to build a new high school on the lower parking lot below the new gym and connect it on the second level where the new gym is.

Shamblin said the school system hopes to get new land from the aluminum company for parking and a practice field. Other changes would be facilitated by the new high school. “We would move the current kids in middle school to the current high school. We would take half the elementary school and make it into an intermediate school, and by building one school, accommodate growth for 10 years to come,” he said.

Regarding business, Johnson said new activity is expected when a mixed- use development is built by Kinsey, Probasco and Associates of Chattanooga on the former West Plant property, 350 acres of land just off Hall Road across from Springbrook Corporate Center property.

Johnson said the city had been working with the aluminum company to work out a deal to develop the land. An environmental clean up company is working with the developer and completing the due diligence necessary to start work. “Their idea is basically make a town center there. Our original planners saw no need for a downtown. This would be great place for it. There is probably really no more of a perfect site for a development like that in the state of Tennessee or the country,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the commission’s vision is to “Create a little piece of heaven on earth.”

Johnson said the city’s leaders developed a management philosophy based on that and try to develop excellent services such as curbside recycling. “One of the goals is quality of life, keeping the tax rate low and utility rate low. We want to be on the low side of our competition and neighbor; we place value on aesthetics. We place value on quality,” he said. “We do pay attention to what is good. We’re trying to build a quality place. There’s always a way to inch forward. We look for that on a continuous basis.”

Johnson said they try to provide sound financial management. “We didn’t have a tax increase. We’re trying to eek by,” he said of this year’s $113 million budget. “We focus on economic development. The only way to keep from taxing citizens is to generate business, keep money here from being spent elsewhere.”

Johnson said 34 percent of the budget is on debt service; 50 percent for schools and 16 percent goes to general government. Sales tax from 1998 to 2008 grew by 41 percent, he said.

The city manager said Alcoa is capitalizing on assets such as the McGhee Tyson Airport, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Spillation Neutron Source in Oak Ridge.

“We know there is going to be growth, and we embrace that. The two cities anticipate growth,” he said.

Johnson said the city’s electric utility department has 27,439 customers and covers half the county. The water department is growing and had 10,052 customers, he said.

The city manager talked about how when he came to the city in 1999, one of the goals was to build a new municipal building. Instead they acquired the facility they use now, he said.

Johnson said the new consolidated service center is going to have Electric, Water, Sewer, Streets, Sanitation; Fleet maintenance, Meter reading in one place. “Anybody who works outside will be consolidated into this building. They’re doing the final wrap up now, and we’ll be moving in the middle of July,” he said.

The city manager talked about the new Springbrook pool facility opened in Spring of 2007. While the building is new, the location is the same as it has been for eight decades.

Johnson said there are more trails to add to the Greenway. One trail would tie into a segment of the Greenway near Clayton headquarters.

“We also plan to connect the trail to St. Ives with a sidewalk up Louisville Road. The way it connects with the rest of system is a pedestrian bridge,” he said of the span that would stretch over U.S. 129 Bypass. “I’m not sure we can build it this year. The price of steel and construction has gone up. It will be located between the Municipal building and Anderson Lumber Co. before you reach the railroad track in the vacant lot where the Barbecue Bash is.”

The city manager said the bridge cost has jumped from $860,000 to $2 million. “It’s going to be tough to get that this year,” he said.

Johnson said the city had a daytime population of 40,000. Alcoa’s population grew by 8,338 from 1990 to 2000, he said.

While many communities are struggling, the city’s bond raters in New York City believe Alcoa is on an upswing. “We’re not suffering as much as a lot of communities are,” he said.

Johnson said Alcoa generates more than $1 million per month in gross sales tax. The city manager joked there’s a sales tax war between Alcoa and Maryville. “We’re constantly neck and neck on who generates the most sales tax, but we don’t really battle, do we Greg,” he said as everyone looked toward Maryville City Manager Greg McClain.

“I’m not talking to you,” he said as everyone laughed.

Johnson talked about new businesses such as Circuit City, Five Guys Burgers and Fries and the Marriott Courtyard. He also mentioned corporate headquarters and medical facilities such as Marriott Business Services and East Tennessee Medical Group. “It’s not the sales tax, it’s having people come in and maybe they’ll stop at Five Guys after getting their cholesterol checked at East Tennessee Medical Group,” he said.

Johnson also spoke about Pellissippi Place, the research and development park planned for the former Jackson Farm. The Pellissippi Parkway extension would run as a sunken highway below grade and there would be office towers over portions of the highway.

A riverwalk would be situated in the middle of the park with festive retail, shops and restaurants on either side.

This summer, work will begin on building the initial boulevard into the park. “A segment will tie into Jackson Hills so they can use the boulevard; it should be a real asset to them as well. We hope to get that started this summer,” he said.

Regarding the project to straighten Middlesettlements Road and connect it to Bessemer Street, Johnson said architects are considering a diverging diamond intersection that would move twice as much traffic as a traditional diamond. “You utilize space under the bridge. There’s not been one in the U.S. One is under construction in Kansas City. It’s not as crazy as it looks,” he said.

Johnson said TDOT was making offers on right-of-ways now. They are scheduled for an early December contract letting and are planning on a two-year window to complete it.

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