Three men want the job at 341 Court Street, and on Tuesday, April 13, they each gave their best pitch to the audience gathered for the League of Women’s Voters forum as to why they would be the best fit for the position.
The three candidates for Blount County mayor stood before a packed house in the Sharon Lawson room at the Blount County Public Library and answered questions regarding their stands on issues and why they thought they would be the best choice for mayor.
County Mayor Jerry Cunningham and challenger Ed Mitchell, retired fire chief of Maryville Fire Department, are running as Republicans. Howard Kerr is running as an Independent. The primary is May 4, and the general election is Aug. 5.
During the hour-long forum, candidates were asked a number of questions submitted by members of the audience. Each had two minutes to answer and each gave opening and closing statements.
Kerr said the county needs a mayor who has the ability to solve a variety of compelling problems. “I’ve taken a leadership role in solving issues. I believe I have the right mix of qualifications, experience, disposition and willingness to work. I appreciate your support and vote in the August election and look forward to serving with your support,” he said.
Mitchell said he wants to serve as mayor in an honorable and effective way. “One of the things I’ve really tried to stipulate as I meet folks is, if I didn’t think I could come to the table and make you proud of the fact you supported me, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “One thing I don’t want to do is disappoint you. If I do, the one most disappointed is me.”
Cunningham said the county mayor is not a position run by ad hoc committee. “You’ve got to cut to the chase,” he said. “You can’t vacillate. You have to make decisions. You can’t run government by ad hoc committee. I think that’s how we got the camel. The Lord appointed a committee to build a horse”
The mayor said he has drawn on his experiences -- from growing up on a farm to serving in the United States Marines to being a U.S. Attorney - to serve the citizens of Blount County. “We’ve brought the county a long way. It was a ship adrift, and it is in a lot better shape now,” he said.
The candidates were asked their view of the role of county mayor regarding industrial development and job recruitment.
Mitchell said the mayor works with the Industrial Development Board as a viable partner. “He is a support for them. The organization is a partnership of all three governments and the role of county mayor should be as a partner,” he said. “It’s a very important role. The support of the mayor’s office is vital to the success of what they are able to do.”
Mitchell said the board should work closely with all three entities - the county and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville. “When you go to recruit and try to bring industry or commercial development in, you go out as a team,” he said. Cunningham said one of roles of mayor relative to recruiting is to ensure funding continues for the Industrial Development Board. “Presently Blount County funds 52 percent of the operating budget of industrial board, and the cities take up the rest,” he said. “I support the concept of the partnership. We work hand-in-hand with folks at Maryville and Alcoa and have a wonderful relationship. It’s an amiable partnership.”
The mayor said sometimes parts need to be tweaked. “When things get out of kilter, it is the job of the mayor to tweak things. The mayor’s role should be as playing peacemaker, stepping in when there is dysfunction, setting them on the right path and making sure county money is flowing into the county entities and not into entities that are not county entities.”
Kerr said the mayor should be the leader and spokesperson for county government and facilitate good cooperation between different entities. “More importantly, we have other entities very important to economic development. Blount County is not isolated. We have to work with organizations like Tennessee Department of Economic Development and other local economic development entities,” he said.
Kerr said his background would help in recruiting new industry. “If we are going to focus efforts on high-tech economic development, my background is economic development in technical areas,” he said. “I can tell you as county mayor we have to work with the Industrial Board and those other entities to make it really work, not just for Blount County but the entire region.”
The candidates were asked if they had plans for developing better lower-income housing.
Kerr said he has plans for getting better jobs for people. “There are programs available for low income housing. I’m a supporter of programs like Habitat for Humanity. There are also arrangements you can make through state-funded programs,” he said. “There are options out there. I’d want a better understanding of the homeless population we have. There is a waiting line for people wanting to get into Habitat for Humanity homes.”
Mitchell said he has been involved with organizations like Habitat for Humanity. “There is nothing more exciting than to watch a family who has never lived in a new home handed keys and watch those kid and family walk in,” he said. “That’s what it is all about. It’s trying to provide good housing for everyone. It’s getting harder and harder.”
Cunningham said in a perfect world he would like to provide that type of housing, but, in reality, funding isn’t available locally to do that. “I don’t think society is ready for additional tax hikes to provide that, and the answer isn’t the federal government. Federal government is not a fix-all. It is a local problem, and we should fix it locally,” he said.
The mayor said federal housing grants have dried up with the slow economy, and there isn’t money on the state level. “The answer I think is to work with the private sector to induce them into making donations and helping fund Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “We need to do it through the private sector with baby steps at a time and not expect Uncle Sam to come in, because he’s not going to.”
The candidates were asked if they favor giving the finance director a vehicle for personal use. Former finance director Dave Bennett was criticized in the past for receiving a county vehicle and current finance director Steve Jennings recently started with the county and also received a vehicle.
Mitchell said if the contract with the finance director stipulated they get a vehicle, then the county would be required to do so by the contract. “As mayor would I provide a car? No, I wouldn’t. To me, when you drive a vehicle home, that is hinging on the fact you are going to be called in for emergencies,” he said. “In those cases, cars need to be driven home. But to give a financial director a vehicle, I don’t see that is something I would support.”
Kerr individuals who aren’t in an on-call status shouldn’t be given vehicles. “I worked for 35 years and bought my own car. County employees have an obligation to serve in their capacity,” he said.
Kerr cited the Property Assessor’s Office. “Those employees who use those cars to do their property assessor’s duties drive them from work,” he said. “I don’t like to see county vehicles parked all over the county sitting idle. That is a cost for providing gas and expenses for vehicles not serving county purposes.”
Cunningham said the question was a red herring because of criticism former finance director Dave Bennett received when he drove a county vehicle. The mayor said it is often a part of the compensation package when recruiting someone like Bennett or current finance director Steve Jennings, a former Alcoa, Inc., executive. “You don’t get people like that to come into government unless you pay them well, and it was part of the package. Steve Jennings was CFO for all of Alcoa’s operations. He was a CFO out of New York, and he is a financial wizard and is going to do many things,” the mayor said. “He was aware of the package Mr. Bennett had, and I couldn’t have gotten someone for less.”
The candidates were asked if they supported licensing animals that residents in the county have as pets.
Cunningham said the last three years he has learned much about animal control after the previous commission opted out of a contract for animal control with the City of Maryville. The commission appropriated money to complete the recently-opened Blount County Animal Center, and the county has been frugal in operating it, the mayor said.
“I would support licensing dogs and cats as a revenue source. Also, we’re looking for exemptions for rescue groups. The whole animal control situation is a work in progress. But for the good work of the commission and Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation, we would be in a mess,” he said. “Animal control has come a long way toward being cured, but additional revenues would be good.”
Kerr said he doesn’t support a licensing fee. “I don’t like adding taxes. People who are law-abiding citizens should not be held liable for taking care of their animals,” he said. “With a name like Kerr, you’ve got to like dogs. I don’t like licensing at all. I think there are better ways to raise funding to support animal control other than permits.”
Mitchell said he definitely did not support a licensing fee. “I don’t think you penalize people for loving their pets. I think good people who have animals don’t need to be taxed again,” he said.
The chief said citations and fines should be issued to those who abuse or neglect animals. “But I don’t see that as way to raise enough funding to run an animal control system,” he said.
The candidates were asked their thoughts on dealing with the county’s debt and the $46 million payment due in June.
Kerr said the county must pay the debt. “The question is how to we pay it, and how do we re-negotiate it. I don’t think a property tax hike is viable. The only other solution is how to refinance it. We’re paying an enormous amount of revenue for interest on debt,” he said. “Refinancing bonds is going to cost money, but the question, is how do we pay the fees? It’s going to be a clever trick to do this without raising taxes.”
Cunningham said $46 million payment was the result of global economic upheaval. “The variable rate bonds had to have liquidity insurance attached to it,” he said.
This type company ensures the marketability of a bond and, when it lost its good rating, there was the chance the bond would be called and the county would have to pay immediately, so a two-year $46 million variable rate bond payable in June of 2011 was negotiated. “It has never been that were going to have to come up with $46 million. That was never in anyone’s plan when this emergency was thrust on us,” he said. “The plan will be to fix the $46 million and to move everything to 75/25 ratio. That’s a good mix. That is the mix Maryville City and Alcoa City have. That $46 million can be fixed with other debt with other swaps. Now is the time to do it. Historically these interest rates will never be that low again.”
Mitchell said the $46 million is not going to just appear. “We have to realize that. To refinance that and invest wisely is very important,” he said.
The chief said a committee of seven to nine successful business people from the community could be convened to study the debt and come up with ideas for lowering the debt. “We have a vast resource in this county of successful investment bankers and successful company owners of Fortune 500 companies. People who have made tremendous and smart investments all their life,” he said. “There are smart people in this community who could sit down at the table and, in a few weeks, come up with one or two different types of answers on how we could invest money that would be a smarter long-term investment for Blount County.”
League of Women Voters co-president Autumn Hall said the event was a wonderful exchange of ideas. “We’re very pleased candidates were open in responding to questions, and I think we are very pleased with their responses to trying to be open and provide information for the voters,” she said.
Co-president Patty DeRycke said they were delighted they had so many people coming out to hear the mayoral candidates. “It was a great turnout, and the questions that came from the audience were very broad,” she said. “These were the issues we are all thinking about as we decide who we will vote for mayor. I thought the candidates were very forthcoming with their ideas, and I think it should help everybody as they decide how they want to vote.”