Tuesday, June 28, 2011

taxes are going up so let's go to the theatre!

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!

Friday, June 24, 2011

To tax or not to tax (and a brief side note about growth)

Dear Friends,

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: blusk@signalmountaintn.gov
Vice-mayor Susan Robertson: srobertson@signalmountaintn.gov
Annette Allen: aallen@signalmountaintn.gov
Dick Gee: dgee@signalmountaintn.gov
Bill Wallace: bwallace@signalmountaintn.gov

Now (finally), here is my letter:

Dear Editor;

            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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mayor Lusk gets slapped down by TDOT Commissioner

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.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

my comments on comments...

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.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Garbage Tax??

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.