I need to return to the topic of town politics again. Our town is served by many voluntary advisory boards. These are all staffed by community volunteers and are all non-paid. This honorable service has been unfortunately turned into a cynical political process by the current Council majority. One of my goals when I was elected to the council was to improve the process of appointments to boards to increase participation. I originated a new board ordinance which put all boards into one place in the town code for easy reference and attempted to standardize the process of appointments and terms of service. I also initiated the concept of "council liaisons" which would be a point person on the council for each board to facilitate communication. I had hoped to make it much easier for citizens to participate in town government and to get a broader range of views represented.
I have recently been told that a council member (Annette Allen, who is the liaison to the Parks Board) has asked long time Parks Board member Jeff Duncan to remove himself from consideration for reappointment so she can put forth a favored candidate. I don't know that there has been any public discussion or vote on this, though confess I am not an attendee at council meetings and am still doing some research on this. Jeff is a PhD biologist who works for the National Park Service and has been a long time member of the Parks Board. His qualifications are without question ideal for that board. However, he has had the audacity to oppose Ms. Allen's pet project of turning over the rights to town park lands to a private non-profit land trust (on which Dr. Duncan sits as a board member) to prevent future Councils from having any say-so in their future use. He did this in a very well considered essay that I have published and which also appeared in the Community News. It should be noted that, while the goal of opening up a position for someone new was apparently used as an excuse, the Parks Board was recently expanded from 5 to 7 members and there is a consideration to expand the MACC Board from 7 to 11, so there are clearly other mechanisms to increase participation.
This is not an isolated or new occurence. After I was elected mayor, one of my first responsibilities was to appoint two members to the Planning Commission. At that time, the Planning Commission was the only board where the mayor had full authority to make appointments. This was based on a state law which was subsequently changed by the majority on the town council (a change that only applied to Signal Mountain) to eliminate any authority by the mayor to make any independent decisions. Nonetheless, all appointments that I made were made with the input and agreement of the council and all were confirmed by unanimous votes by the Council. My first appointment was an attempt to broaden the viewpoint and balance the involvement on the Planning Commission by using the two openings to both re-appoint a sitting member, Wells Blake and also to appoint a member of the "Recall" Faction to the commission to represent those views. I appointed Melissa Cantrell. This was an attempt at balance and fairness and seeking a diversity of opinions.
Since then, the appointment process has gradually evolved into a very political one. It rapidly became apparent to me that appointments to the boards would only pass if the appointees held views acceptable to the majority. There were many examples of this: Dan Saieed, former chairman of the Planning Commission requested to be re-appointed. Although I had full authority to do this on my own, Dan, being a man of honor, said he only wanted re-appointment if he had the support of the council. This was after a very successful process of developing a new land-use plan one year after we all were elected or appointed. I informed the council of his request and was met with a torrent of insults and attacks on Mr. Saieed. When I asked for substantiation accusations by the other four on the council of inappropriate conduct by Mr. Saieed, I was given none. When I reviewed his record and informed the council that I found no record of any wrong conduct, I was met with silence. Nonetheless, when I told Dan that he did not have the Council's support, he withdrew his name.
Later, Greg Goodgame asked for reappointment. Greg had served on the Design Review Commission for several years, was the Chair of the commission and had been a regular attendee of Council meetings. Unfortunately, he had also run for Town Council and opposed the recall. After initially agreeing to reappoint Mr. Goodgame, the Council tabled his application in a regular public Monday night meeting then later rejected his appointment at one of our weekday "agenda meetings" when no public was present. Again, accusations were made that he had not fulfilled his responsibilities in re-writing both design review regulations and a new sign ordinance in the previous year. I didn't know all the workings of the DRC for my first two years on the Council. Bill Lusk has served as liaison and had apparently never attended a meeting. I became liaison and forwarded a request from the DRC for help in drafting these new ordinances. This led to the hiring of an outside design firm (KRW) to help with the design ordinances. Now, two or more years later I don't believe either of these ordinances have been finalized. Nonetheless, Greg was booted out of his volunteer position for having had the temerity of opposing the majority of the council on the recall.
Another instance was the removal of Wells Blake from the Planning Commission. Susan Robertson accused him of using his position for personal gain (again, in an "agenda meeting" when Wells was not present to defend himself). The fact that the ethics and organization of his occupation as an appraiser prevented any such activity was apparently lost on her, but she attacked and removed him anyway. Mrs. Robertson was also found abusing her "liaison" role in picking and choosing which candidates to even present to the Council for consideration. At one meeting she announced that she and the Tree Board chair had decided which individuals to appoint to the Tree Board. When I asked her at which public meeting this decision had been made and by whom, Mr. Long, the Tree Board chair honorably acknowledged that they had essentially violated the Open Meetings Law by making these decisions in private and apologized (though Mrs. Robertson did not). She later told me in private that the other candidates were unacceptable to her and she had applied her own criteria to weed them out, though provided no specifics.
I find this effort of stuffing the various town boards with political supporters and friends of the majority on the council to be an unfortunate turn for the town. I think that increasing participation should involve adding alternative opinions to broaden the views of the council. These are supposed to be "advisory" councils, not rubber-stamps for the previously decided views of the council. I hope that, in this fall's election, the board selection process will be brought forward as an important issue for the town.
One of the greatest strengths of the Signal Mountain community is the history of volunteerism of its citizens. Maybe that's why they call Tennessee "The Volunteer State"? Ya think? Anyway, I have been fortunate to learn of many of the great service organizations on "the mountain" and have even served with a few. I would like highlight some of them.
I recently joined the Signal Mountain Lion's Club. You may know them as those guys with the funny yellow vests who serve BBQ on Fourth of July and Labor Day. However, the Lion's Club is an international organization with a history of service dating to its founding in 1917. That was the year that Chicago businessman Melvin Jones formed the national Lion's Club, based on some local "Lion's clubs" already formed in 1916. In 1920, the Lion's Club went "international" with formation of the first Canadian club. In 1925, Helen Keller challenged the Lions to become her "knights of the blind in the crusade against blindness" which began the Lion's well known connection to sight-related services.Lions Clubs International is the world's largest service club organization.We have 1.35 million members inmore than 46,000 clubsworldwide. Lions are everywhere. We're active in more than 206countries and geographic areas.
The Signal Mountain Lion's Club is over 50 years old. We have a dinner meeting at 6:30pm every 2nd and 4th Tuesday in the dining room at the Mountain Arts Community Center (MACC). In addition to vision screening and other sight services, we are known for our BBQ picnics every July 4th and Labor Day and for sponsoring fireworks at the July 4th BBQ. We sponsor a Leo Club for youth at Signal Mountain High School. While our current membership leans towards the male persuasion, we are a "coed" organization and are actively recruiting ladies to join. So, if you're looking for a great opportunity for service and fellowship and some fine dining, give the Lion's Club a visit. You can find more information at the follow websites:
Just wanted to give you one more chance to enjoy a great brunch at Sweet Gipsy on James Blvd. Jennifer Verville has provided a great dining experience serving her special Sweet Gipsy French Toast (you just have to taste it), Southern Breakfast Casserole, crispy bacon, ham biscuits, steamed asparagus, curried tomatoes, fresh cut fruit, hashbrown casserole and assorted breakfast breads (I can personally vouch for the scones and chocoloate croissants!). Adults can sample delicious Mimosa drinks with orange juice and champagne. All of this and great entertainment by Dana Rogers. What more can you ask for $20 ($10 for kids), all benefitting the MACC Foundation.
So come on over to Sweet Gipsy after church (from 10-2pm), then go do some local shopping for the last day of Sunday on Signal. The weather's beautiful, hope you'll be there!
As you should already know, this weekend is Sunday on Signal, both Saturday and Sunday! Details on the sales and events can be found at the Mountain Business Association's website: http://signalmba.com/. The MACC Foundation is hosting a Jazz Brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10am-2pm at Sweet Gypsie's on James Blvd. Price is $20 for adults and $10 for children. All proceeds will benefit the Mountain Arts Community Center. Dana Rogers will be providing the entertainment. You can find out more about Dana at her website: Dana Rogers music .
I want to let everyone know about an excellent theater experience this weekend, Nov. 3-6. SMMHS Theater Department will present "The Boys Next Door" Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7pm and a matinee on Sunday at 2pm. I was privileged to watch a rehearsal of a scene from this play and it is going to be great. This is a play about four mentally challenged adults and contains some material not appropriate for children younger than 6th grade. I strongly encourage you to go. SMMHS is showing it is not a "one-trick pony" and in addition to becoming a sports powerhouse is also developing an outstanding arts program.
Also, I thought I'd share a bit of "Hendricks Halloween". It ain't just for kids! My daughter, true to her love of history and her motto "well-behaved women rarely make history" went as the iconic "Rosie the Riveter":
Not to be outdone, Paul followed the trick-or-treaters at a discreet distance:
joined by his lovely wife as... umm... I'm not really sure:
and of course, how could I leave out the vegetables:
In my last blog I mentioned briefly my concern about giving away town property in order to save it. I think we are capable of preserving our town's public lands ourselves without giving away our rights to this property to non-public entities as being proposed by some on our Town Council. In a recent Community News Wed. supplement, Jeff Duncan outlined his concerns in greater detail than I could even begin to approach. Jeff is not only a town resident and member of our Parks Board, but is a PhD biologist/ecologist, employee of the National Park Service (and he obviously expresses his own views and doesn't speak for the Park Service) and a member of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust Board. I don't think you can get much better credentials than that on this issue. I would like to repeat his admittedly long, but quite well considered essay here on my blog (with his permission). I urge you to take a few minutes to read it, then pass along your views to the Town Council. Thank you.
Signal Mountain Town Conservation Easements: Good Idea or Public Policy Gone Awry?
An Open Letter to the Signal Mountain Town Council
By Dr. Jeffrey R. Duncan
Dear Signal Mountain Town Council Members:
Recent interest in donating conservation easements to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust is an example of good intentions meeting unintended consequences, and is simply poor public policy. Although I’ll be the first to lead the charge when it comes to protecting the Commons—that which belongs to all of us—it is quite simply not the role of a town government to give away landownership rights to an outside entity. There are in fact other ways to achieve the same end, that of protecting our beloved parklands, without sacrificing the will of the citizenry now and in the future.
First, allow me to provide a little background on a concept that is often new to many, or otherwise not fully understood. Land ownership comes in different forms. The most common form is ”fee-simple.” In this case, the landowner owns all rights to the land and is free to do anything on the land he or she wishes, subject to zoning regulations and various other laws. But, land ownership can also be seen as layers, where different parties own different rights to the land. Mineral rights are a prime example where one party may own the rights to the surface of the land allowing them to build, live, farm, etc, while a second party owns the underlying mineral rights giving them the ability to extract various minerals out from under the primary land owner. Other entities can own water rights, timber rights, hunting rights, etc. You get the picture.
The concept of a conservation easement was devised to help landowners protect their private property from various forms of development in perpetuity. In essence, the creation of a conservation easement grants partial ownership (one of the layers) of a piece of land to an outside entity—typically a land trust or government entity—which is responsible for ensuring that certain activities do not occur on the property subject to terms of the easement. In other words, the holder of the easement treats the easement as their own property and is even obligated to defend any encroachments upon their interest in the land. The value of the development rights that are encumbered within a conservation easement varies based on the terms of the easement and other factors, but a good rule of thumb is that value given away by the primary landowner to the land trust is approximately 80% of the original value. The reason a private landowner would want to give a portion of their land rights to a land trust is typically to protect the land from development by future landowners, typically their heirs, and in some cases for tax benefits. The concept was established as a means of land protection for private landowners.
Few cases exist where a municipality donates its development rights (i.e., a conservation easement) to a third party. Where these cases do exist, typically the conservation easement was placed on the land prior to it being donated from a private owner to a municipality. This is the case with a town-owned parcel behind St. Timothy’s Episcopal, where a conservation easement was placed on the land prior to the land being donated to the town. Similarly, Stringers Ridge in Chattanooga was recently donated to the City of Chattanooga to create a park. A conservation easement was placed on the land prior to the tract being transferred into city ownership.
So what’s motivating the Town’s recent interest in handing over partial ownership of its parklands to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust? There are no tax advantages associated with the action since the town does not pay property tax (in fact there are potential disadvantages I will get to later), and the only heirs in this case are the future residents of the town. The motivation and sole benefit of the Town giving away the development rights for Town-owned lands is to protect them in perpetuity from development. A noble ambition, right? Not so fast.
As is all too often the case with actions taken by government, even a government with good intentions, there exist unintended consequences. Such is the case with the idea of giving a share of Town land rights to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.
The first unintended consequence is the cost to taxpayers of Signal Mountain. While not hugely expensive on a government scale, entering into a conservation easement is not free. As with any real estate transaction, there’s the cost of due diligence, closing costs if you will. The Town is not exempt from these, and the River Gorge Trust has no interest in picking up the tab. My back of the envelope calculation, an educated guess really given that I have yet to see any hard figures from the Town, is that between title searches, land surveying, recording fees, legal prep fee, etc., the Town will need to lay out somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000 to close the deal. Of particular note is the survey that would be required to delineate parklands from the Signal Mountain Country Club (an ironic example of the Town sharing landownership, or more precisely land management with an outside entity). On one hand, $10-$25K may not seem like a lot of money. On the other, this is the same cash-strapped town that recently considered a wheel tax, garbage collection fees, and other assorted cutbacks just to make ends meet. Strictly within the Town’s Parks and Recreation Program is a unfunded backlog of maintenance and other projects that exceed well over $300,000, and this is just scratching the surface! I suspect $25K could go a long way toward these various unfunded Parks and Recreation needs, not least of which is replacing the Shoal Creek swinging bridge that was recently destroyed by severe weather and repairing the bridge on the Rainbow Lake Trail.
Another unintended consequence is litigation. Yes, litigation. By donating conservation easements to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust (or any outside party), the Town would essentially be entering into a partnership with a separate entity over which it has absolutely no control. The Town would have restricted abilities to make any land management decisions on its own lands other than those that would be stipulated in the easement. Even something as simple and relevant as a Management Plan for parklands would need to be reviewed by and agreed to by the River Gorge Trust. Conversely, the River Gorge Trust has a moral and legal obligation to protect the conservation easement against all threats, including potentially the Town. How might this occur?
Consider, for example, the rules that Town Council recently passed into law governing what types of activities are and are not allowed to occur within our parklands. One of these rules is “no camping.” Another is “no open fires.” Unfortunately, the Town has neither the will nor the resources to enforce its own park rules, evidenced by the frequently smoldering campfire rings, empty beer bottles, and of other signs of camping in the area below Rainbow Lake Dam. If the Town has rules on the books to prevent environmental degradation and/or natural resource management, but is complacent in enforcing the rules, we are arguably in violation of our obligation to manage the lands appropriately under the easement (before the easement even exists) and therefore at risk of litigation brought on by the holder of the easement. Another example is the recently expanded parking lot at the Rainbow Lake Trailhead. Had an easement been placed on this property prior to the project, the Town could have been liable for grading and paving the area. For the record, I could list other examples where litigation could be brought against the Town by an easement holder, but for the sake of brevity, I will resist.
A third unintended consequence is permanence in the face of an uncertain future. In the context of a conservation easement, the Devil’s always in the details. Because a conservation easement is intended to protect land, it must be restrictive enough to allow the easement holder the ability to protect the land (in court if necessary). Therefore, the language that makes up the easement, the terms of the easement, require placing bounds on any future use. While this may appear straight forward, it is implicitly complicated when it comes to allowing certain types of recreation and not others, especially for lands that are by definition public lands. For example, it was recently stated by a member of Council that zip lines might be a desirable use in some areas of Town-owned lands. While I’ll leave the merits of this idea for a separate discussion, it brings up the fact that we, today, cannot possibly comprehend what recreational desires may be in the future. Zip lines, as recreational activity, were virtually unheard of 10 years ago. Twenty years ago saw the advent of disk golf. Thirty years ago, mountain bikes had yet to be invented. Who knows what outdoor recreational pursuits future generations will conger up? Regardless, the establishment of conservation easements over Town parklands would leave future generations of Town citizens out in the cold when it comes to making decisions about what they can and cannot do with their public lands. Remember, we don’t own these lands; we’re simply borrowing them from future generations.
My final point, rather than being an example of an unintended consequence, is simply to point out that the use of conservation easements as a silver bullet, one-size-fits-all approach for land protection is a misguided concept. As a staunch advocate for conservation, and as a natural resource management professional, I applaud Town leaders for their willingness and desire to protect our collective park lands. But, there are more appropriate means of protecting our public lands from development. In a recent article in the Signal Mountain insert of the Times Free Press, the establishment of our National Park System was metaphorically referenced with respect to our Town parklands. It’s worth noting here that all of our National Parks were established through Congressional legislation as opposed to conservation easements (not withstanding some National Monuments that were created by Executive Order in accordance with the Antiquities Act). This is, in fact, the way public lands should be preserved—by law rather than by donating ownership rights to an outside entity over which we have no control.
To some extent, our parklands are already protected by local, state, and federal laws. The Town currently recognizes these areas as parks with the primary use as recreation (e.g., see Signal Mountain Town Charter, Signal Mountain Land Use Plan, Signal Mountain Park Rules and Regulations). This is arguably a pretty strong administrative record toward preserving and managing these areas as parks. Although I will admit that some future rogue Town Council could vote to change this designation, I must remind you that this is the same Town that just a few years ago recalled virtually an entire Council for not being restrictive enough on private lands! I have absolutely no doubt what the outcome would be if a Town Council of the future voted to develop all or part of our beloved parklands. Outrage! Please don’t let the pendulum swing too far, from not being environmentally protective enough on private lands, to being overly protective of public lands.
In addition to the Town’s existing regulations, our parks are already protected in perpetuity by virtue of the fact that state and federal funds have been spent to create and improve our trail system (e.g., a federal Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21) Recreational Trails Program grant provided to the Town in 2000). Along with this funding came the stipulation that the trails and their adjoining lands must remain intact as recreational resources forever. It’s called, “Notices of Limitation of Use,” and it offers yet another layer of protection, albeit a little-known layer. Specifically, the condition attached to this funding states that the “property may not be converted to other than public outdoor recreations uses…” (http://www.tn.gov/environment/recreation/pdf/2010/nlu.pdf).
Current protections aside, I believe there is room for improvement. In fact, there are a number of ways to protect land from development without donating a stake in the land’s ownership to a separate entity. For example, the Town could establish higher standards for protecting our parks, much like has been done through the establishment of our National Park System. This could be done at no cost to the taxpayers and without controversy, simply by revising and strengthening existing Town laws as they relate to parks. Some have suggested the creation of a Town Wilderness designation (Rainbow Lake Wilderness is currently wilderness in name only). Provisions could include explicit language relating to ground disturbance, removal of native vegetation, control of exotics species, protecting riparian corridors and aquatic habitats, restrictions of motorized vehicle assess, and by establishing the requirement for developing and periodically updated management plans. These are all things the Town should be doing anyway.
In summary, conservation easements were not designed to protect public lands. It is the role of government, that is “We, The People,” to protect what is ours, not a land trust. Further, in a democracy the rights of all should be preserved, including (some may argue especially) those of future generations. By donating land rights and the underlying value to create a set of conservation easements over Town-owned parklands, we would in essences be taking rights away from future generations of Signal Mountain residents and sending a message that we don’t trust them to appropriately manage that which we all value so highly. We would in essence be acting like parents who cannot trust their children—in perpetuity. I urge you not to relinquish ownership and control over Town-owned lands to any outside entity. Instead, let’s work creatively to develop mechanisms to better manage and protect our fabulous natural areas, on loan to use from future generations.
Jeffrey R. Duncan, Ph.D.
Biographical Information: Jeff Duncan has a doctorate in Ecology from the University of Tennessee with a minor in Environmental Policy. In addition to serving on the Signal Mountain Park’s Board for the last 7 years, he is a former member of the Signal Mountain Town Planning Commission, a Board Member of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, and is employed as an ecologist by a major federal land management agency. He resides with his wife Laura on Ravine Road, adjacent to Green Gorge Park where together they are raising their two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wanted to discuss briefly an issue coming to a head this week. This is difficult for me because it is an issue I feel passionately about, natural lands preservation. My concern is that it is so easy to misunderstand, or worse misconstrue my position. The issue is not about the fact of land preservation, it is about the means. I stand behind no one when it comes to my commitment to public lands. I was deeply involved in public lands issues when I lived in Virginia and was involved early on in the efforts that eventually led to the passage of the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2009 (http://www.vawilderness.org/news/releases/virginia_ridge_and_valley_--_victory!). As a life member of the Sierra Club (and the only town council member I know of ever endorsed by the Sierra Club) I feel my environmental credentials are secure. So, why do I have concerns about the proposal to create conservation easements on Signal Mountain’s public lands? Basically, I do not think it is good public policy to give away rights to public lands to private entities. I think that public lands should be preserved through appropriate legislation and zoning. This has worked well in preserving our National Parks and national wilderness areas. The lands recommended for this proposal are currently protected as town public park lands. The basic assumption of this proposal is that a future town council would be willing to allow development in Green Gorge or Rainbow Lake or similar areas. I find this a bit cynical since the only proposal I have ever heard to sell town lands to private entities for development was the proposal by the majority on the current council to sell the town recreation lands around the town hall to a developer for a shopping center! Frankly, I can’t imagine a future town council allowing the sale of these town gems and can imagine even less the idea of the town not rising up in rage if such a proposal were presented, much as the town rose in rage over the previously mentioned proposal to sell off the town’s lands just a few years ago.
The town is holding a public hearing on this issue Tuesday night, Oct 11 at 6:30 at the town hall to discuss this issue (I tried hard to find info on this meeting on our town’s website, but unfortunately the only reference I found was buried in the “council notes” http://signalmountaintn.gov/assets/notes/2011/10052011.pdf, it is not even on the town’s calendar!). So, again to be clear I strongly support the desire to protect these lands, but feel the proposal to give away rights to our public lands, even to a superb organization such as the Tennessee River Gorge Trust is not the right way to do it. I hope that all of you will express your own views at the above meeting or the regular town council meeting tomorrow night, Oct. 10 at 6:30 at the town hall or through emails or calls to the town council. Thank you.
Well, it's that time of year again. Hodge Podge is this weekend, Oct. 7 and 8 at Signal Mountain Town Hall. We've got shopping, kids events, art shows, music, etc etc. For all the details, please go to our website:
As you may know, I am arranging the musical performances. Unfortunately, my usual "partners in musical crime", the Thatchers have a college trip they have to take with their daughter (I know, what a distorted sense of priorities...), so "The Orchard Band" can't be there, but I will be doing a solo performance, Saturday afternoon at 3pm.
I supposed I should be flattered, but his letter totally misrepresented my proposal. Obviously, it would be easier to respond if Mr. Poss had accurately reflected my "plan", but his letter totally ignores what I proposed and raises concerns about things I never proposed! I don't know Mr. Poss and he has never talked with me. I probably met him briefly when we appointed him to the Planning Commission, but he never contacted me with these concerns in the past when the Council dipped into our reserves (or "fund balance") in previous budgets when I was on the Council. I never mentioned anything about using our fund balance in the budget, although our balance has been quite healthy and is basically there as a "rainy day" fund. However, my proposal was to use taxes currently being use to make extra payments on a very low interest loan which we have already paid ahead considerably. He justifies a tax increase as a way to prevent a tax increase, which is an argument that I don't understand, but seems to follow Susan Robertson's logic of raising taxes now (during an economic downturn) rather than 10 years from now. Finally, I should note that the best way to prevent tax increases is through responsible, planned growth. Our Land Use Plan had anticipated commercial growth at our current commercial "hub", the shopping center. Unfortunately, when such growth was proposed, Mr. Poss voted against this proposal, which would have provided a new "anchor" store at Signal Plaza and potentially added up to $350,000 per year to Signal Mountain's coffers which would have more than offset the proposed tax increase. I hope in the future Mr. Poss will look more carefully at such proposals as mine and the one he turned down for the town before looking at tax increases as the solution to our fiscal problems.
While I have had my differences with Bill Lusk on town policies and issues, I have always respected his dedication to his son, who suffers with autism. He has an OpEd in the Times Free Press yesterday, July 29th which I feel is quite pertinent and I wanted to share it with my readers. I tried to post a link, but was unable so have taken the liberty of copying the article to my blog. Please read it.
TEAM too critical to lose
TEAM is a place of caring specialists who serve children and adults and their families. TEAM cannot be duplicated.
By Bill Lusk
After 47 years, Tennessee’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) has decided to withdraw grant funding for TEAM Center. This shocking surprise was immediately followed by news that TEAM would close its outpatient clinic. All this comes as a terrible blow to families trying to cope with developmental disabilities such as autism.
Unfortunately, many facts and important details have not been reported. After a concerted effort by many of the families affected by TEAM’s closing, we discovered that most of our lawmakers were unaware of the elimination of TEAM’s grant, because it was not mentioned in DIDD’s budget. Had DIDD’s budget report indicated this important grant would be eliminated, the public would have received notice, and I believe many of our legislators would have tried to prevent such an action. I trust that our legislative delegation is now working to rectify the problem.
TEAM Center provides unique services in this area. The clinic at TEAM specializes in evaluation, diagnostics, and treatment for people of all ages and incomes with developmental disabilities. Each member of the staff at TEAM is a highly trained disability specialist. One is a nationally recognized neuro-developmental pediatrician and professor at Emory University. Their knowledge make TEAM a valuable resource for our region and many families drive hours to receive treatment.
The cost to provide services for the developmentally disabled is significant because these conditions are lifelong and often accompanied by other disorders. Caring for a person with a developmental disability is a family experience. Whether for diagnosis or treatment, work by the family, patient and his/her clinician will far exceed typical insurance reimbursement and is much more time consuming.
TEAM provides highly trained staff within a flexible environment that is responsive to patients’ needs. The clinicians, the tools, and the environment are different based on the individual’s needs, and many of the ancillary services provided are not reimbursable. This is especially true of TennCare which reimburses about 30 cents on the dollar.
TEAM’s clinic is extremely efficient while providing positive outcomes for its patients. The following data highlights the impact that the state grant has vis-à-vis other services provided by DIDD: that TEAM’s services were easily obtained via TennCare or the Department of Education. This contradicts DIDD’s own assessment. In the 2011-2012 budget, the other three Resource Centers with a total budget of $13,852,800 are being built because, as DIDD states: “The resource center serving persons with intellectual disabilities in East Tennessee will provide access to a variety of medical and health-related services that are difficult to obtain in the community due to the lack of available and willing providers. (Emphasis added.) These services will enable persons enrolled in the Medicaid waiver programs to successfully reside in community-based settings of their choice.” But what about those in our area who cannot travel to Greeneville or patients who are not enrolled in Medicaid waiver programs? What will happen to them? My family, for example, struggled through years of uncertainty, misdirection and misdiagnosis by the school system’s psychologists and other providers. That delay in receiving an accurate diagnosis may cost our son dearly in his years ahead because early intervention is paramount. It was not until we discovered TEAM that our son was properly diagnosed and an appropriate course of treatment was developed. TEAM’s staff is world class, and there is no duplication of services in our area as claimed by DIDD, and certainly not under one roof. TEAM is a place of caring specialists who serve children and adults and their families. TEAM cannot be duplicated. Accordingly, it should retain the $286.67 in state funding per patient necessary to maintain the program and provide our region with an invaluable level of services for the least among us. Bill Lusk is a resident of Signal Mountain, where he serves as mayor, and is the father of a child with autism.
I thought I would address the recent Signal Mountain property tax increase one more time, primarily as concerns the rhetoric. The original referendum passed in 2004 allowed a property tax increase "up to" 35 cents to pay for the school bond. This tax would go away when the bond was paid off. This amount was calculated based on a 20 year loan payoff at the maximum interest rate of 6% (we purchased a "cap" on the interest rate). Since then interest rates have run something less than 1% and we have greatly accelerated the pay-off on the loan.
My proposal, which Bill Wallace and Dick Gee agreed with and advanced so capably was to avoid a tax increase by lowering the amount of the "school tax" to offset any general tax increase. Susan Robertson called this a "back door tax". Well, back door or front door, a tax is a tax. My proposal would have kept money in people's pockets at a time when the economy is in significant pain and that was the goal. Her "front door" approach takes money away now and leaves a higher overall tax rate in effect when the "school tax" is eliminated, so is really both a front door and a back door tax!
The Council majority stated that lowering the bond payments to the minimum would cost an extra $150,000. This amount would be spread over the next 10 years or so. With approximately 7500 citizens and just under 3000 households, this amounts to approximately $20 per person or $50 per household. That's not per month or per year or per decade, but total. So, we could have assessed every household a one time fee of $50 (rhetorically speaking) instead of increasing taxes by $150 annually for every $100,000 of assessed value of your house. Frankly that doesn't make economic sense to me nor sound like much of a savings.
Finally, there is the "moral and ethical" charge. One or two years ago, after the county reassessed all county property, we lowered our overall tax rate by 15% to compensate for a 15% increase in property values. At that time, we lowered the "school tax" from $.35 to $.30 to keep it from biting into general revenues and to avoid a tax increase. This was non-controversial and I don't remember any discussion about the "moral and ethical" consequences. I also don't remember any consideration or discussion of how much tax would be rescinded when the loan was paid off. If the "school tax" is lowered, that is how much will be rescinded. It was not an issue then, so I don't know why it is an issue now. On this, as on so many issues, the principles of the majority on the council seem to bend to fit whatever their latest whim is, be it taxes or land use or money for education, etc.
As you probably know, after initially voting to keep taxes level on June 20, Mayor Bill Lusk reversed himself and voted for a tax increase at the Monday morning June 27 "agenda" meeting. He said he did this because he heard from more people supporting a tax increase than those opposing. Obviously, since he had previously voted to oppose the increase and noone knew he was going to change his vote it seems clear that he only heard from those who were encouraged by Susan Robertson to contact him to support her. She aggressively has been pushing for this tax increase (after initially proposing a "wheel tax" then a "garbage tax") after stating during her campaign last fall that she hoped there wouldn't be any need for a tax increase for 3-4 years! Since we are currently spending an extra several hundred thousands of dollars per year over and above the minimum payment required for the high school bond, I have long advocated using that extra money to avoid a tax increase. We have already shaved at least 6 years off the life of the loan and are currently paying around 1% interest on the bond, thus with inflation this is essentially a no interest loan. Mayor Lusk in the paper today made the rather odd statement that part of the reason he voted for a tax increase, after initially voting against it, was because he expected he would have to raise taxes again next year! Ironically, one or two years ago, when increases in the property assessment values allowed us to lower the overall tax rate, we decreased the amount going to the bond from $.35 to $.30 to shift revenues from bond payments to the general fund and avoid a tax increase, so there is nothing sacrosanct about this amount. Apparently the only difference then was that it was an election year. Obviously, we are talking about two legitimate positions... keep taxes the same and continue to pay off the loan "only" 6 years early or raise taxes to pay off the school loan even earlier. My real issue is the hypocrisy of Ms. Robertson running on a "no new taxes" pledge then immediately and aggressively pushing for multiple tax increases, coupled with Bill Lusk voting one way at the public budget meeting then,without any previous indication of his change of heart, changing his vote during a special Monday morning meeting when very few people can attend. These meetings were originally proposed by Mr. Lusk as work sessions to discuss issues and decide when topics were ready to be put on the agenda for our regular more public meetings on Monday nights, not as a way to hide from the public when making controversial flip-flops. Unfortunately, it has frequently been used for just that purpose. I can't tell you how many times Robertson, Lusk or Allen stated during one of these meetings "we have to keep this secret, the citizens won't like it or understand it", including meetings with developers to sell town recreational property to those developers, economic development plans like Ms. Robertson's suggestion to get a convenience store built on Shackleford Ridge Road near the High School, traffic cameras and many discussions about individuals they deemed unacceptable for town boards. I rebelled at this cynicism and arrogance which was a big reason for the differences in style between myself and the other council members. This issue deserves a clear public airing. The final vote on the budget (and the tax increase) will be this Monday, July 11 at 6:30pm at the Town Hall. Councilmembers Dick Gee and Bill Wallace have voted to oppose this increase and I suspect will continue to show their strength of character by remaining consistent and opposing this increase. If you have an opinion, I would urge you to attend this meeting and express that opinion. If you can't go, you can email the council at: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com I would also encourage you to consider sending a "letter to the editor" to the Times Free Press at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Chattanoogan.com at email@example.com. Thank you for listening to me! I hope you also come to see "Beauty and the Beast" this weekend or any of the next four weekends in July at the Signal Mountain Playhouse: www.smph.org.
Well, I was optimistic last week but I was mistaken. Bill Lusk changed his vote Monday morning and sided with pro-tax increase Councilmembers Susan Robertson and Annette Allen so Signal Mountain will have a 10% tax increase in spite of efforts by Councilmembers Dick Gee and Bill Wallace to avoid such an increase. Looks like it's time for me to head back to politician rehab, so I'd like to talk about the upcoming Playhouse production of "Beauty and the Beast"!
I have been a fan of the playhouse productions for many years. Several years ago, my kids got involved when Nathaniel played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! with his sister, Mary Eliza who played an orphan. The next year, they both participated in Oklahoma. I feel like I got to know the Playhouse people well and was a big supporter while I was on the Council. This year, however I decided it was time to take the plunge and try-out for the summer play myself, so Mary Eliza and I will be appearing in Beauty and the Beast! I will be playing the kindly bookseller which means I get to be in the "villagers" chorus for such show stoppers as "Belle", "Gaston" and the "Mob song" and attack on the castle! Mary Eliza is not only a school girl but shines brightly on stage as a candlestick in the castle!
It is a great privilege to be a part of this talented group and I feel honored and a bit awed. The show features such Playhouse regulars as Tim Forsythe as the vain and swaggering "Gaston", Rob Inman as the uptight and "t-t-t-tense" Cogsworth and Shandra Burnette as Babette, the sexiest featherduster in France. Michael Smith, who I saw doing a great job as Harold Hill in "The Music Man" at Chattanooga Theater Center is Lumiere, the candelabra while his son, Michael, Jr. is "Chip" the cup. Leslie Bell is Mrs. Potts, keeping everyone warm and well fed. Mark Oglesby is hilarious as Lefou, the ever-suffering, ever hero-worshipping sidekick to Gaston and Bob Roza puts his deep, sinister voice to good effect as Monsieur D'arque, the corrupt head of the insane asylum. Starring as Belle is Becky Gardner, who has the beauty and innocence required for the role, but enough spunk that you fully believe she could handle both the village bully and a ferocious beast! Matt Lynn plays the beast with the combination of ferocity and tenderness you know he possesses. I have left out a whole bunch of other folk (including long-term playhouse regular Denny Wolfgang as the baker, my fellow village merchant), so you'll just have to come out and see for yourself.
So, I hope this little mini-preview is helpful. I feel lucky and proud to be a small part of this group. It is inspiring to be surrounded by so much talent. While I have been a performing musician all my life, I haven't done theater since high school, but have been made to feel welcome and a vital part of the whole enterprise. Director Alan Ledford has a great way with both the kids and adults (that is, the over-21 kids) and David Wood is patient to a fault with our attempts to stumble through his choreography. Oh, and did I mention Mike Huseman? Mike is our pianist extraordinaire doing his best (and succeeding) to sound like the entire orchestra that I look forward to hearing when we open the show! I know Mike from his days as Chair of the MACC Foundation, but his piano-playing just makes me want to lock myself up and (as the old joke goes) practice, practice, practice!
So, no excuses... you have 8 opportunities to come see the show. July 8,9,15, 16, 22, 23, 29 and 30 or basically every Friday and Saturday night in July after the fourth, at 7pm each night. I look forward to seeing all of you there!
I want to share a letter I wrote to the TimesFreePress in response to yesterday's editorial. I have been assured that it will be published, but with the upcoming budget hearing on Monday morning, thought I would try to get ahead of the "news cycle". I confess that some of my intensity on this issue is a bit personal. One of the greatest negatives attached to politics is in the area of hypocrisy. As someone who has been attacked as lacking "honesty and integrity" for taking consistent, public and principled stands on this issue, it does bother me that Vice-Mayor Susan Robertson stated during her campaign last fall that she "hoped we wouldn't have a tax increase" for several years then almost immediately after being re-elected began advocating tax increase after tax increase, first a "wheel tax", then a "garbage tax" and now an increase in property taxes. At the same time her supporters were attacking other candidates as supporting tax increases for merely pointing out something that Ms. Robertson should have known better than anyone that the town faced fiscal challenges in the near term. The campaign would have been a good time to discuss this honestly and openly, but she and her supporters chose to fall back on ad hominem attacks on other candidates and to obscure the facts about the town's situation. Now the chickens have come home to roost.
One other comment I'd like to make is on the "elephant in the room" issue which was so dominant 4 years ago, growth and planning. We started a three-step process in 2006 to complete a new planning and development process in Signal Mountain, encouraging "smart growth" and conservation-oriented growth planning. We completed a land-use plan in the first year as the first step. The next step was a re-write of our subdivision regulations. It has now been almost 3 1/2 years and this second step is not complete. All this was preliminary to the real issue of re-writing our zoning laws to encourage progressive land use principles. I opposed the repeal of the Shackleford Ridge ordinances for two main reasons: first because I had promised to revise and improve them, not just repeal them and return to old processes that I felt were flawed and wasteful of land and resources. I believe in keeping my promises, so I did. Second, I knew that these ordinances needed to be improved and felt that keeping them in place would serve as an incentive to the Planning Commission to get its job done. I felt that, if the ordinances were repealed, there would be a general attitude of "mission accomplished" and that, since the whole goal of the "recall" crowd was to shut down all growth on Signal Mountain, there would be foot-dragging to prevent any growth. I was obviously right.
We will continue to face revenue challenges, ie the need for new taxes. The solution to this is an increase in our tax base. Our current Planning Commission rejected the only major commercial project proposed in the last few years (with the exception of the hair-brained idea of selling off town property to commercial development, which I did oppose as did just about everyone else in town that I talked with). This is an issue which must be addressed directly and not by foot-dragging and overblown rhetoric about "unbridled growth". Census reports have shown that the town is stagnant and that is not a good thing.
I hope that some people can attend the public hearing on the budget on Monday morning at the Town Hall. Frankly, I think it is ridiculous to have such an important public hearing on a Monday morning rather than at a time that the people who work for a living can attend. Nonetheless, it is what it is. If you can't go and still want to express your opinion, you can email the council as follows:
Mayor Bill Lusk: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vice-mayor Susan Robertson: email@example.com
Annette Allen: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dick Gee: email@example.com
Bill Wallace: firstname.lastname@example.org
Now (finally), here is my letter:
Your editorial in today’s paper (6/23/2011) on Signal Mountain’s recent tax vote is misleading. Over the last few years, the Town of Signal Mountain has raised its own taxes several times to pay for a high school which should have been paid for by Hamilton County like every other school in the county. This dream of a local High School finally came to fruition in 2008 and has been an incredible success. The town undertook a $7.7 million bonded indebtedness for this school which was originally scheduled to be paid off over 20 years. Due to a combination of using previously collected sales taxes (also voted on by the citizens for the school), early tax collections and low interest rates, we have lowered that debt nearly by half in just four years. We have truly made hay while the sun shone.
Part of the reason for the rapid pay down of this loan is that tax collections from the school portion of the property tax were set high in anticipation of higher interest rates than have occurred. Because of this, we are collecting amounts much in excess of the minimum annual payments. Now, in this time of economic downturn the town has wisely decided to use that excess tax revenue for other needs. You state that we have “extended” the payoff to 2021 when in reality we have shortened it by 6 years! You don’t mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest saved by shortening the life of this loan. This school will be just as valuable, if not more so in 2021 as it is now so it is truly an investment in the future. A family takes out a mortgage on a house to extend payments over time for budgeting purposes and the Town of Signal Mountain has wisely done the same.
I support the recent decision of the Town Council to keep overall tax rates steady while shifting priorities from debt service towards needed services and maintenance and hope that you will also see the wisdom in this approach.
Paul M. Hendricks, MD
Former Signal Mountain Mayor and Town Council member
Signal Mountain has had a less than ideal relationship with the state highway department, going back to adamant opposition to TDOT plans to widen the road up the mountain back some 10 or more years ago. When I got on the Town Council, I made it a priority to work to patch up this relationship with some success. I also learned that it is rarely productive to pick fights with state and county officials in the newspaper. Unfortunately, despite many conversations on this subject with Bill Lusk during my term (including his attacks on WWTA, the sewer authority http://www.chattanoogan.com/articles/article_129533.asp, an attack for which he personally apologized to former WWTA head Henry Hoss), he has not learned this lesson and has now been publicly slapped down by TDOT commissioner John Schroer (http://chattanoogan.com/articles/article_203404.asp). Schroer's letter is also in the Chattanooga TimesFree Press this morning. We were told several years ago by TDOT that a new road up the mountain would cost many millions of dollars and would close the road for up to 2 years and this has now been confirmed once again by Commissioner Schroer. There is a long term plan to build a separate road up the back of the mountain in the Sawyer/Corral Road area, but this is no more than a line on a map on the long-term transportation plan and is also years in the future. I feared this would happen when I read Mayor Lusk's intemperate public comments calling the re-paving of US 127 a "waste of money" and figured he would get a phone call or letter as we did after a similar incident early in my term. However, I didn't expect such a public calling out. Frankly, it is an embarrassing incident for this town and I hope that a lesson was finally learned.
In other news, apparently the Council has decided against a garbage tax and will plan to raise property taxes in spite of Vice-Mayor Susan Robertson's campaign comments that she "hoped" she wouldn't have to raise taxes for the next 3-4 years. I thought at the time that this showed a clear lack of knowledge about the state of the town's finances and apparently that was the case. It was an unfortunate missed opportunity to use the campaign as a forum to inform the public about the state of the town's finances and to engage the citizens in discussion about ways to deal with these concerns. I'm sure that many of her supporters, including some of our local tea party advocates who promoted her as an anti-tax champion are feeling misled at best. I still think that, in light of this financial need and a deficit which is now over $300,000, continuing to pay huge extra amounts on the "school bond" is a luxury we cannot afford (we paid an extra $900,000 in 2009 and almost $700,000 in 2010 over and above our minimum annual payment). This money could go along way towards covering the deficit and some of the town's long term maintenance and public works needs.
I am committed to being very open in this blog to comments of all kinds. I started moderating comments mainly because of some Chinese and Russian porn spam I was getting! However, I did receive one anonymous personal attack awhile back which I chose to ignore. As a general rule I wish anyone commenting would be willing to leave their name, but realize some aren't comfortable with that. As long as comments are construct and relatively polite, I will publish anonymous comments, but reserve the right to exclude comments which are gratuitous. After all, it's my blog and I'll do what I want to... but I would really like for this to be an opportunity to discuss issues affecting Signal Mountain and encourage my readers to participate in the conversation. I only ask for a little respect.
I will say that, while I had my differences with the rest of the Council while I was on it and was subjected to some nasty personal attacks by some of them and their supporters, my experience with my constituents on Signal Mountain was 99% positive. I found that the vast majority of residents were respectful, even when disagreeing with me. I know that the annexation discussions got heated at times and that I was passionate on that issue, primarily trying to make sure that the facts stayed in the forefront, but even that has resolved relatively amicably. I do believe we can all "get along" if we try. So, let me hear from you.
It is awfully hard to follow what is going on with the budget on Signal Mountain. The last I heard, a new garbage tax was a "done deal" according to Bill Wallace's Facebook page and certainly the news coverage seemed to support that. Today, Bill's Facebook implies that the garbage tax will not be enacted and that a property tax increase is ahead. I know that Annette Allen has advocated a garbage tax (oops, I mean "fee") for awhile. When we went to automated garbage service a few years ago (a change I strongly supported), it was project to save around $100,000 per year which I thought justified the decrease in service from twice a week to once a week. I did not support decreasing backdoor service to our elderly and disabled citizens, though there was pressure from staff and other councilmembers to do so and apparently that is part of the current proposal... ie, increased fees for decreased service. I have long known that we would need to do something about revenue soon and was frankly surprised that town manager Honna Rogers hadn't recommended a tax increase sooner, but since my last year on the council was an election year, I suppose I shouldn't have been (surprised, that is). Nonetheless, the new census numbers supported my contention that the town has not grown in the last decade, in spite of all the fear-mongering about "unbridled growth". However, our costs do continue to grow and I knew that eventually the piper would have to be paid somehow.
There is some merit in going to a fee-based garbage system if it is used to reinforce recycling and decrease the waste stream. However, a "fee" which applies essentially to every household and which is an additional cost is a tax, so that's what I'll call it. I would have preferred an offset in property taxes if this was truly initiated as a way to separate out the garbage service. The problem with fees is that they are regressive, ie they affect those of lesser means (especially those on fixed incomes) disproproportionately and if the service being paid for is one that everyone uses, it becomes a regressive tax rather than a true fee. I supported some of the fee increases introduced during my term because we were trying to get in line with other towns and because the services were more optional (pool, tennis, gym, MACC, etc), however garbage service is basic and universal.
Frankly, I am a bit surprised that Joe Dumas and Mo Kiah and some of our other anti-tax teaparty types haven't been raising the roof on Chattanoogan.com over this proposal. As a matter of fact, the Chattanoogan seems quite uninterested in covering much of anything on Signal Mountain. The last article I found on our budget was from 5/6 (http://chattanoogan.com/articles/article_200658.asp). Chattanoogan.com certainly seems to be less interested in Signal Mountain's activities since I've been off the council (maybe a coincidence or am I just paranoid??).
At any rate, I am very curious about what the final decision will be but either way I would plan on paying more for something. I still refer everyone back to my suggestion to keep taxes level, (see blog of Feb. 10), but since Mayor Lusk attacked me so aggressively on this proposal in his letter (on the Chattanoogan.com) of last fall, I would not expect this to be adopted.
The Mountain Arts Community Center (MACC) Foundation announces its “Moms, Music and the Mountain” concert this Saturday, May 7. The MACC Foundation is a private organization founded to support the programs of the Mountain Arts Community Center.
This event will benefit the Karen Shropshire Memorial Scholarship Fund. Karen was the first director of the MACC and led it through its first 10 years of existence. Karen was passionate about the arts and the MACC and also about the students who were coming to the MACC for arts courses. She would sometimes reach into her own pocket to pay for students who couldn’t afford to take classes. This scholarship fund was established by Karen’s family after she passed away this past January. It will be used to fund deserving underprivileged individuals who wish to take classes at the MACC.
We invite all music lovers to come listen to live acoustic music all day at Signal Plaza and support Karen’s fund. We also invite you to have lunch and dinner at our restaurants and visit our shops while looking for something for Mom.
As many of you know, my acoustic trio The Orchard Band will be playing at the Signal Mountain Business Expo this weekend. Information on the expo can be found at: http://signalmba.com/events/signal-spring-expo/. Mountain Cove Bluegrass will be playing from 11:30-1:30 and we'll be playing from 2-4. When I announced this event, I was reminded of all the other wonderful things going on this weekend.
First, Signal Mountain High School Theatre Dept. will be presenting the musical comedy "Little Shop of Horrors" on Thurs-Friday and Saturday night followed by a matinée on Sunday. Details can be found here: Little Shop of Horrors at SMMHS.
Saturday night will also feature a performance at the Mountain Arts Community Center by the Uptown Big Band. Information can be found by contacting the MACC at 886-1959 or checking the website at: MACC Website.
And don't forget Signal Mountain Youth Baseball's Home Run Derby & Festival going on Saturday as well. As well as the kids' HOUR Derbies, there will be a Dads' Derby, Moms game and several activities.
This is SMYB's annual fundraiser and couldn't come at a better time. There's a bevy of talent in our youth leagues - come out and see them! More info and contacts can be found at: Signal Mountain youth sports.
I'm sure this list isn't exhaustive, only a few of the other things I was reminded were happening this weekend. So... anyone who says "I'm bored" this weekend just isn't paying attention! And the last time I checked, the weather is supposed to get great! So come on out for some great music, theatre, gardening and sports!
Look for more info coming up on the "Moms and music" event next weekend!