Trouble in Paradise? (Part 13): Four More Years?

Blount County’s establishment expects voters to re-elect the incumbent local officials simply because the incumbents do the establishment’s bidding. But aren’t they supposed to represent YOU? 

During the 1980 presidential campaign, outsider candidate Ronald Reagan stunned his unprepared opponent—failed Democratic President Jimmy Carter—by asking the American public, during a televised debate, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan followed this query with a litany of specific questions regarding the economy, national security, and public safety that focused attention on Carter’s dismal performance during his single term in office. Reagan won the election in a landslide, beating a sitting President—a Naval Academy graduate—in humiliating fashion. All it took was focusing the voters’ attention on the incumbent’s track record.

Blount County voters will go to the polls later this year with a similar choice: Four more years of the status quo, or a change of course. Let’s review what policy results the incumbent leadership has delivered as elected officials, and then you can decide if you want more of the same, or something different.

To clarify, I am not criticizing all incumbents; as will become clear, my main complaint is with County Mayor Ed Mitchell and a 21-member County Commission that serves, in the words of departing Commissioner Joe McCulley, “as a rubber stamp for the Mayor.” (For example, in a rare display of independence, the County Commission recently rejected the Mayor’s slate of nominees to the important Budget Committee (which included a liberal Democratic activist). Instead of nominating a new slate, the Mayor resubmitted the same names, whom the County Commission then cravenly approved.)  I also have serious concerns with the local school boards, which account for about half of your property tax bill.

Is Blount County better off than it was four years ago?

Your property taxes are too high, because County Mayor Ed Mitchell favored keeping the county rate at $2.47 per $100 of assessed value, even though the tax base–appraised values—increased. The “certified” tax rate, which would have taken the increased appraisals into account to achieve revenue neutrality, was $2.25 per $100 of assessed value. The tax hike (which County Mayor Ed Mitchell misleadingly insisted was not an increase) allowed the County Commission to give county employees—many of whom were already overpaid—a hefty pay raise.

Thanks to back-room deals made by the Blount County Industrial Development Board without proper oversight, using $12 million of your property tax dollars as an incentive, the Blount County Commission and City of Alcoa induced Amazon to build a huge, robotized warehouse near the Pellissippi Parkway that will generate congestion and pollution, and attract low-skilled transient workers. This is just one of three Amazon warehouses that our “leaders” have attracted to blight our community.  County Mayor Ed Mitchell had the temerity to call the Amazon warehouse in Alcoa a “Super Bowl win” for Blount County!

The local “planning departments” (city and county), enabled by pro-development boards of zoning appeals and planning commissions (city and county), routinely rubber stamp dense residential subdivisions that do not conform to zoning guidelines (minimum lot sizes, requirements for detached dwellings, etc.), despite community opposition, and without regard to inadequate roads, drainage, and other infrastructure.

Even worse, when the Blount County Planning Commission initially rejected a massive subdivision of cookie-cutter tract homes at Best Farm, the commissioners later changed their vote to a 5-to-5 tie, without explaining the reason for the change, which resulted in the project being approved by operation of law.  The incumbent leadership is responsible for these feckless appointees and pro-development staffs at the local planning departments.  Only electing new leadership can restore accountability.

County Mayor Ed Mitchell directly promotes this rampant overdevelopment by clandestinely handing out sewer easements (connecting Pate Farm to the Carpenter Middle School pipeline) and doling out $20 million in federal and state grants to connect to the city’s sewer system Louisville, Friendsville, and other areas currently served by septic only.  Does he represent you, or favored landowners and developers who will be enriched by building more subdivisions, industrial parks, and strip malls? If the Mayor wanted to use $20 million to improve Blount County’s infrastructure, perhaps he could start by widening narrow roads, improving drainage to prevent flooding, or other measures that would benefit existing residents.

Congestion in Blount County has grown progressively worse. During peak traffic periods, Highway 411 is bumper-to-bumper. Remember the epic gridlock that occurred in November when eight Budweiser Clydesdales appearing at a Food City in Maryville caused traffic to backup for miles in all directions? Imagine how much worse things will get when all the subdivisions now under construction (or in planning) are completed and occupied. Reckless overdevelopment is creating a nightmare all Blount Countians will have to live with.  

The Blount County Public Library, governed by appointees selected by County Mayor Ed Mitchell and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville, had a radical leftist, transgender activist as head of programming (or Education Services Manager) and provides free office space to a non-profit organization that serves the homeless—the last group of people we should be attracting to our beautiful library facility.  While the transgender activist subsequently resigned (after being exposed and criticized), the existing oversight of library operations—financed with millions of your taxpayer dollars annually—is weak and ineffective due to the appointment of cronies to the Board of Trustees. You deserve better.

This is a recurring problem in Blount County. Appointed boards and commissions are filled with the same people, drawn from the inbred ranks of insiders rather than selected based on merit or drawn more broadly from the community.  Insiders don’t care what residents think. They were chosen—anointed–to implement the agenda of the incumbent official(s) who appointed them, not to represent the interests of the public.

In a case in point, due to mismanagement and inadequate oversight, Blount Memorial Hospital lost $64 million from 2008 to 2022. BMH lost $6.4 million in the first quarter of 2022 alone! The hospital’s financial performance has continued to worsen. These losses come out of your pocket, directly or indirectly, in the form of taxpayer subsidies. Only lax oversight by an inattentive governing board would tolerate such poor performance by hospital administrators. Moreover, there is a lack of transparency and accountability regarding BMH’s finances.

In Maryville, a methadone clinic was approved a stone’s throw from a day-care center with the support of County Mayor Ed Mitchell and County Court Clerk Tom Hatcher. Hundreds of drug addicts visit this narcotics dispensary each week to receive their “fix” of opioid substitutes. Was public input solicited for this controversial decision? Of course not, because our local officials don’t care what you want. They would rather give favors to insiders and campaign donors.

Each year, the local school districts (Alcoa, Maryville, and Blount County) cost more to run, grow progressively top-heavy with overpaid administrators, and deliver disappointing results in terms of student achievement. Yet the elected school boards, instead of demanding better performance for Blount County schoolchildren, or acting as stewards for Blount County taxpayers, serve primarily as cheerleaders for the teachers, administrators, and staff. The local schools are constantly asking for more money. School boards exist to represent the parents and taxpayers; administrators are subservient to the school board, not vice versa. On matters involving curricula, books used in the classroom, “diversity,” and indoctrination of principals and assistant principals, school boards are often inattentive and unresponsive to the wishes of parents and taxpayers.

At the Maryville City School Board, under the “leadership” of Chairman Nick Black, parents and taxpayers are not even allowed to speak at school board meetings regarding items not on the agenda, without the permission of the Chair. Inexplicably, despite this contemptuous attitude toward Maryville residents, Nick Black is seeking a judicial position that would only exacerbate his pomposity and arrogance.

While it is not the most important issue, a recent incident reveals the true attitude of the local establishment on several different levels. As has been reported in the Tennessee Conservative News and the Tennessee Star Report (but not, of course, the Daily Times), the Blount Chamber of Commerce (whose Board includes various elected officials and a member of the Blount County Election Commission) prepared a “woke” candidate questionnaire asking candidates to explain what kinds of policies they would pursue “to promote social and racial justice in our community.” At the request of the Chamber, Blount County Administrator of Elections Susan Knopf inappropriately sent multiple emails to qualified candidates soliciting responses to the “woke” questionnaire. And now, the Administrator of Elections (who earns a whopping $94K/year) and the Election Commission refuse to answer questions regarding the incident.  Our local officials are more comfortable doing favors for insiders than they are in responding to the public they represent.

What do you notice about your community that concerns you most? Overpaid government bureaucrats (many of whom make more than $100K/year)? Homeless people congregating in the parks and greenway? Growing congestion on our roads? Multiple Amazon warehouses? Age-inappropriate content and liberal indoctrination in the local schools? The loss of Blount County’s rural character as we begin to resemble Farragut or West Knoxville? Elected officials who seem deaf to the concerns of the voters they supposedly represent? The lack of transparency in decision-making affecting your community? Rampant nepotism and favoritism in local government? The Blount Partnership’s use of tax funds to promote Blount County as a “hipster” destination, using Blount County Democratic Party Chairman Nathan (“Lube Guy”) Higdon as a photographic model in a tourism brochure?

This list, as depressing as it is, is not exhaustive. I have barely scratched the surface. I have catalogued my concerns in greater detail on my Facebook page, Blount County Conservative Sentinel, in an article for The Federalist, and in a series of blog posts on Misrule of Law, entitled “Trouble in Paradise? (Parts 1-12).”

Whatever your concern(s), do not expect things to change unless you vote for change. Re-electing the same crew of elected officials will ensure the continuation of the same unsatisfactory policies. Make sure you are registered to vote, and vote.

Who do I support?* These are my suggestions. Do your own homework and decide for yourself. Don’t assume that an incumbent is sound simply because he or she professes to be a Republican. RINOs abound.

James Ripley for Chancery Court

Jerome Moon for State House District 8

Bryan Richey for State House District 20

Jim Hammontree for County Mayor

Ryan Desmond for District Attorney

Todd Orr for Property Assessor

Beth Myers-Rees or Phyllis Crisp for Recorder of Deeds

Judge David Duggan for Circuit Court

Jessica Hannah for County Commission District 1

Wayne Baldwin for County Commission District 2

Ken Lee and Kevin McNeill for County Commission District 4

Tom Antkow for County Commission District 5

Nick Bright for County Commission District 6

Steve Mikels and Leah Hood for County Commission District 9

Steven Kelly for County Commission District 10

Erica Moore for Blount County BOE District 5

Joe Lindsey for Blount County BOE District 3

Steven Phipps for Blount County BOE District 1

Tim Dabney for Maryville School Board (at large)

This list will be updated as the election grows closer. When deciding who to vote for, consider whether they are being supported by real estate developers and related industries (e.g., excavators), have ties to the downtown establishment, or espouse policies that will promote more reckless overdevelopment instead of focusing on improving the community. Be wary of candidates with ties to public education; they tend to be single-issue advocates for more K-12 spending. There are many familiar faces and names in local politics; some have served for a long time. Everyone makes promises at election time. Ask yourself this: When is the last time that one of these familiar elected officials spoke out to oppose the liberal agenda in the public schools, or to enforce the provisions of our zoning laws to prevent attached dwellings in areas zoned R-1, made a public statement defending the interests of the community, or wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with the noisy liberal minority in Blount County? If you want to see a change in direction, you need to vote accordingly.   

* I have not endorsed in every race because some incumbents are unchallenged and others simply do not warrant an endorsement.

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
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