September 9th Candidate Forum
I attended the candidate forum, sponsored by the Mountain Business Association (MBA) on September 9th, 2014. The candidates were provided questions in advance. On my Signal Mountain Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/110672268965327/) I have offered to allow the candidates to submit their prepared answers for this summary. I have done my best to record the answers provided that evening. Any errors are, of course, my own. The advantage of a blog is that it allows interaction. If anyone feels I have misrepresented an answer, feel free to discuss this in the comments. I also urge anyone reading this who has a Facebook account to join our "League of Signal Mountain Voters" group (mentioned above) to discuss Signal Mountain issues. We've had some spirited discussions on this site, but they have always been civil and enlightening.
The forums started with opening statements and closing statements, which I have not included. The answers were restricted to 1 minute. Since some candidates submitted their prepared answers to me, they may not have been completed during the forum itself. Also, Dick Gee was unable to attend as he was out of town on a long-planned trip. I have offered him the opportunity to provide his answers to these questions and hope to publish those in a future blog.
So sit back with your favorite beverage and learn what our Town Council candidates have to say.
1. Do you support preserving and protecting over two hundred acres of Signal Mountain parkland by granting a conservation easement on these lands to the Land Trust for Tennessee?
Allen: Yes. To prevent future development and risks we can’t see. She likened it to seat belts or an insurance policy for our great-grandchildren.
Howley: Agrees with preservation, disagrees with process after studying it. Stated land trusts are for private not public land and that we can’t predict future needs. He thought there were better methods to preserve the parks without giving up control and encumbering future councils.
Robertson: She referenced the land use plan, stated that the State Forest could be cut down and that land along Shackleford Ridge Road is private and could be developed.
Spalding: There are 10 reasons that this is a bad idea.
1. Any additional restrictions using the term “protections or sharing control” with a land use trust constitutes by definition loss of control.
2. After three years it is presumptuous not to allow a full three readings or a wider poll of the 8600 residents. The full document [apparently referring to records of input from citizens provided by the town] is only based on 18 signatures and 20 emails which are about 50-50 in support.
3. The Parks are the Crown Jewels of Signal Mountain. We already have adequate measures in place to protect them
4. If the town can fund a land trust survey but not a SRO program, this is a perfect example of misplaced priorities.
5. The fact that this resolution is being fast tracked means they are acting out of desperation not by fair legislation.
6. I think we can all agree no one wants to develop these properties.
7. This could damage future land donations
8. Future technology that we cannot even perceive today could fund the entire town for another hundred years without any development of the land.
9. If a clear majority of the town want it, then it should be approved.
10. If the council knows of an impending action to develop these parks then say so. Otherwise this is a resolution without justification
2. The town requires all businesses to appear before the DRC for signage approval. Do you support this process? If not, how would you change it?
Howley: stated he was a former member of the DRC and suggested that the DRC is overbearing and an example of business hassles in the town. He suggested he would welcome a discussion about eliminating the DRC in favor of a variance board for those whose signs or designs were not in compliance with town regulations.
Robertson: She stated she is the Council liaison to the DRC and read the “purpose” of the DRC. She stated that the DRC regulates the size and height of signs and that it has worked out well, but is not perfect. She stated that she was open to advice from local business and that there are discussions to add an MBA member to the DRC.
Spalding: There are too many Chefs in the DRC Kitchen. Too many opinions and not enough support of the actual business’s effort to get a useful sign approved.
A Sign needs three factors,
One - a noticeable large logo,
Two - a way of contacting the business for information and
Three - the absolute need to be visible by car traffic.
As the only storefront business owner running as a candidate, I found personally the DRC is not responsive to the needs of business. I have seen this on multiple occasions. My new sign has provided me with 15% more business and it was like picking eye teeth out with the DRC all the way. I would describe it as a bluffing game process.
No one is more knowledgeable of what a business needs than the business owner.
Remember a pretty sign does not help if a business goes out of business. And we have had a lot of businesses go out of business.
I feel that the process should be streamlined with an online application process. The MBA needs to be involved with all business signs approval processes with a permanent MBA member on any committee resembling the DRC in the future.
Allen: stated that we had a good sign approval process which helps businesses by making them more appealing. She stated that the DRC pays attention to aesthetics and scale and that it’s working well.
3. Question about attitudes towards employees and employee retention and the recent process involved with the change in Town Managers.
Robertson: Stated things were working well, that the town had brought salaries up to a minimum average. She stated that the town was losing too many police and that we need to do better with pay.
Spalding: Stated that the town needed to pay police enough for retention, pay is currently too low. Same with the Fire Department, salaries are too low. He recounted his background in EMS as a founding Board Member of WRES, a paramedic and Sheriff’s Deputy.
Allen: Town is aware that we need to improve the pay scale and is doing a study on salaries. She stated that the town council had improved benefits for police with such items as take home vehicles. She stated that the last process for picking a town manager (ie, Chris Dorsey) was not effective. That it was based on numbers and was not personal or intuitive.
Howley: Visited with town officials and stated the town has good employees and good relationships. He did feel that retention was an issue, that he manages 2500 people and knows that turnover is expensive. He feels we are fortunate to have our current Town Manager (Boyd Veal) who is a longtime resident and very dedicated, but he stated that the fact that the town has had three town managers in 4 years is disturbing and the way Chris Dorsey was fired was embarrassing and that he would like to know what the problem was with Chris Dorsey.
4. Do you think the Signal Mountain budget is too fat, too skinny, or just about right? If you don't like the current expenditures, specifically which ones would you change and why?
Spalding: The Town of Signal Mountain budget should be apportioned to what it takes to adequately fund all the basic town services.
We have some major pressing issues with waste water deficits and sewers systems that do not adequately meet that needs of all the residents on the mountain.
We are looking at $2.5 million to build, equip and staff a new fire station. We have to replace aging equipment and build a new public works facility.
We have multiple building maintenance issues, multiple expenses with the library, ball fields and with improving the MACC building.
We are facing at least 10 million in basic expenditures and the town cannot just annex themselves out of revenue problems due the new State of Tennessee law prohibiting annexation without referendum. That means we have to get creative in finding new forms of revenue.
I have a long background in keeping a business running for 16 years on Signal Mountain and believe me it is no small feat when so many go out of business on Signal.
I have a track record starting online companies, creating successful businesses and thinking outside the box.
We need to constantly review the budget and have a balanced budget that is consistent with the ability to forecast expenditures with new ways to fund them.
Allen: Thinks things are all right and sited the new improved town bond rating. Stated there was a 6 month budget process and that the town was fortunate to be able to fund amenities such as the MACC and sports fields, etc. She stated that department heads were required to apply for grants.
Howley: He stated that he works with budgets on a daily basis and he thinks the budget is about right. He reviewed the budget with the Town Manager and that he felt the Town had good staff. He stated that 80% of the budget was for fire and police but that there were significant costs coming in the future including a $3 million in facility upgrades and repairs, a new fire station (on Shackleford Ridge Rd) and unknown potential WWTA/EPA expenses for environmental mitigation.
Robertson: Stated that the budget is ‘terrific”. She stated the town was faced with a scary budget 8 years ago and much deferred maintenance, that most was corrected. She sited the Vehicle Replacement Plan [Ed note: proposed by former town manager Honna Rogers] and claimed “over a million in interest savings on school bond” [Ed note: a claim that I have yet been unable to substantiate and seriously question]
5. What is your position on the repaving of Signal Mountain Blvd and the future of the trolley tracks?
Allen: public meeting revealed strong support for preserving the road as it is and that is what the council voted for.
Howley: Stated the area is historic and the town should maintain the old look and feel. He also stated that the sidewalks are in bad shape and need repairs. He expressed the need to support and preserve the road including the trolley tracks.
Robertson: is happy we can finally do it and fortunate to get a grant to cover part of costs.
Spalding: Signal Mountain is a series of micro communities but we all pay taxes to the same government and use the same roads.
Signal Mountain is unique due to our longstanding effort to support the traditions of our heritage. I have talked to many residents in the immediate area of the tracks and most near the tracks want them preserved.
Those who do not live in the immediate area find them problematic for driving.
Currently the town has allocated funds along with a grant to replace them. Politicians are supposed to find a compromise when budgeting for projects and as long as money is available or as long as primary town services are not interrupted I support the need to maintain the roads with the tracks. I would like to see the Lion’s Club or another volunteer agency either acquire or build a replica trolley car to be located on the terminal end of the tracks in front of the Alexian Brothers to give the tracks more meaning to the residents who do not live in the immediate area of the tracks. This would help foster the appreciation of the history of the tracks
6: What are your thoughts on the property purchased by the town for the library?
Howley: He was at the meeting where this was decided and thought it was a decent purchase if the town can use it, but was concerned that one council member was obviously upset over being left out of the process. He thought this indicated a problem with the process.
Robertson: Stated it’s a wonderful asset for the historical committee to meet in and for storage.
Spalding: Stated he is very pro-library, but wondered about the priorities. He stated that the town was not paying for an SRO (School Resource Officer), and that these were misplaced priorities. He stated the town needs to consider police, Fire and Public Works first.
Allen: Stated the house was a good purchase for the town. She wasn’t sure about the process or why a council member felt left out. She stated “we discussed it and voted”.
7. Where do you see the MACC in the future and will the town play at part?
Robertson: Stated that the MACC is part of the town and has come so far. It needs approval by the fire marshal, needs sprinklers, new heat and air and an alarm system. She stated it needs to be self-supporting.
Spalding: The MACC is a valuable civic resource for the arts and for many educational community endeavors.
The MACC serves as a community meeting place for the lions club and many other groups such as this forum tonight
Once the fire code issue is solved, the kitchen can additionally serve the needs of the community at a higher level. The Town of Signal Mountain has an obligation to support the MACC facility but the town should not be running the day to day activities of the MACC.
When Governments try to micromanage volunteers they usually fail and it is certainly true with the town trying to run the Hodgepodge. People will make donations to volunteer organizations but will not always make same kind of financial donations to governmental entities.
The Friends of the MACC raised 57,000 dollars in donations in one year and made the Fall Hodgepodge event profitable. The Town took over the Hodgepodge event two years ago and failed both years to make a profit and now is trying to extricate itself from a previously successful event.
Government can be a stumbling block when it comes to managing volunteers. Tennessee is the Volunteer State. Volunteers take the time to do a task because they feel they are in control but they are less effective if they are micromanaged.
Allen: Stated MACC is a hub for the creative process and she would like to see the town continue to support the MACC. She would like to see a new “Friends” group.
Howley: Stated the “MACC” is both the services and the building and that these could be considered separately. The services are important and what makes this town special. The building will continue to be expensive, but has significant historical value. He would ask questions about making the MACC self-supporting and would consider creating a 501c3 organization of volunteers to manage the MACC.
[Editor’s note: Many of you know of my experiences with the town and the MACC Foundation and Hodgepodge. I am happy to share with anyone interested]
8. What are your views on the relationship between Signal Mountain, Walden and Hamilton County?
Spalding: There is a very good longstanding cooperation between the Hamilton County Government and the Town of Walden with the Town of Signal Mountain.
The Town of Walden’s fire department, ie Walden Ridge Emergency Services is one of many reasons our ISO rating is so low for our homes because of a joint mutual aid agreement for manpower and equipment.
A minimum of 15 firefighters is required to fight a working structure fire. The town has 6 members on duty at all times and that means additional firefighters and fire fighting pumper equipment come from WRES and even Red Bank Fire Department to meet the town obligations.
I am a board member of WRES and I am proud that I am one of two remaining original incorporators who signed the Charter of Incorporation for WRES in 1976.
I am also a commissioned reserve deputy with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s department which provides primary police services to Walden and provides law enforcement back up to the Town of Signal Mountain and SMPD backs up our deputies as well.
County Commissioner Jim Fields has a working budget that he has graciously spent in this district. Future discussions with both governments the may help defray the cost of a SRO program as well.
Allen: Stated there was a good working relationship with the county and mentioned mutual aid agreements.
Howley: Stated the relationship seems fine from the outside. He stated that relations could be better, that he is a long-time big supporter of the schools. He stated that the loss of the SRO was an important issue for him. He has spoken with our school board representative, Dr. Jonathan Welch and Dr. Welch was unaware that the SRO position had been eliminated. He also stated that he spoke with a Ken Flynn, a local TDOT representative who stated that the town hadn’t met with him for 5 years and that there was no plan in place for the road up the front of the mountain.
Robertson: Stated that the council met with the Commissioner of TDOT. She stated the council met with Jonathan Welch (school board representative) about the SRO. She stated that SMMHS was the only school without an SRO.
9. Question about whether the candidate was prepared to attend meetings and commit the time necessary to serve:
Allen: “Yes, I am and I have been”. She likes the work with “amazing volunteers”
Howley: Yes, he has a long history of service to the community and will make the time. He has spoken with many citizens who feel it is important to have representation of a very large and growing demographic which has been lacking over the last 8 years, families with school age kids.
Robertson: Yes, stated she has only missed 2 meetings and “loves the work”.
Spalding: Yes, he’s a solo practitioner, so can arrange his schedule. He has a long history of volunteering in the community and wants to give back to the community.
10. How would you support and assist the businesses on Signal Mountain?vAnd be specific.
Howley: stated that he is a business owner. Stated that government needs to get out of the way of business. He wants to change the culture and minimize the morass of regulations. He stated that businesses are the second largest source of tax revenue for the town and that the town should consider our local businesses as customers. He stated “don’t tie up (business owner’s) time” and that he would be very business friendly
Robertson: stated she is a business owner and member of MBA, stated ‘we don’t have many rules or regulations once they get a sign”, She has written articles for local businesses.
Spalding: The businesses of Signal Mountain raises more tax revenue for the town than any other revenue source other than property taxes. Businesses should be supported by the town in word and deed. I am the only store front business owner running and the current ordinances simply do not support businesses.
Non-friendly Business issues include:
a. We are charged 50 dollars to apply for a permit process to have banners announcing any sale items.
b. Simple window mounted open signs cannot blink to tell you that they are open or closed.
c. If Dominoe’s pizza sign or the pharmacy apothecary sign blew down tonight they could not be replaced under current laws.
Three simple things would help our business district:
* Change the sign ordinances to allow electronic signs to advertise town events with a community electronic bulletin board.
* Have a “business of the week” advertised on the town website and electronic bulletin board
* Have greater involvement of the MBA with a permanent role on the Planning Commission, the DRC and the BZA (Board of Zoning Appeals)
Remember we have a 100 year anniversary to look forward to in 2019 and the MBA and all volunteers groups should play a part
Allen: stated the town “shouldn’t get out of the way, but should pave the way”, suggesting establishing a “fee based” resource center or website for businesses similar to something Chattanooga has
11. The businesses have asked for holiday decorations for years. Other communities surrounding us have this to support the businesses. Why doesn't our town council do the same? Holiday decorations are good for the holidays and help foster business sales.
Howley: He stated that it may not be a popular position, but that he felt this should be funded by the business community rather than the town. He did state he would support the business community in this and that the town should provide services such as installation, etc.
Robertson: She stated that in her nearly 8 years on the Town Council she had never heard that request. She stated that we don’t decorate the shopping center because it is private property.
Spalding: The Holiday day train is now a project that is run by the Lions Club that brings many Children up to Signal Mountain for all to enjoy. This fosters good will and many businesses get most of their sales during these times and the town directly benefits. This could be another area where the MBA and the town can function with other volunteer groups to dress up our town.
The Town could provide the public works department equipment to help set decorations with volunteer groups. Sunday on Signal can kick off the season. Other Holidays can also help generated sales with Easter and Valentine’s Day celebrations. A Christmas parade can help entertain and promote sales. As you know I am into holiday lights with my train and I challenge others to give more reasons for people to be up on the mountain to spend their time and visit businesses. Any means to get people up on the mountain give multiple businesses an opportunity to make sales. I support finding ways to dress up the town.
Allen: She agreed with Spalding that she likes holiday decorations, especially snowflakes, but that we have no light poles to decorate. She would support public-private partnerships.
12. What is your position on the SRO (School Resource Officer) and our schools?
Allen: stated an SRO is important, but that the county should pay for it. Mentioned that the town manager was meeting with county officials about possibly cost-sharing. She stated this was the only school “of our size” without an SRO [Ed. Note: a subtle change from Robertson’s earlier statement that we had the only school without one].
Howley: He felt that the lack of an SRO was an important issue. Mentioned that East Ridge, Red Band and another town (Ed Note: I believe he said Soddy-Daisy) all contributed to funding an SRO for their local schools. He felt the town had dropped the ball in stopping funding for this position after 14 years with no plan in place find other funding. He was surprised to find that Jonathon Welch was unaware that the position had been cancelled. At a bare minimum, he felt that someone from the town should have picked up the phone and talked with Dr. Welch before eliminating the position. He stated he would use his personal relationships with county officials to work with the county, he stated that the town’s website promotes our SRO, even though we don’t have one. He stated this was a reason the town needed a council member representing families with school age children in the public schools.
Robertson: stated we don’t have an extra officer for an SRO, stated she wouldn’t mind partially funding an SRO
Spalding: My extensive background in public safety suggests are three primary functions of a town. Law Enforcement, Fire Dept and Public works. IF you fail these, you fail the public miserably.
As I speak tonight, there is no SRO officer assigned after 14 years of continuous funding by the Town. This is unprecedented.
The current SRO quit in April and the town council had 4 months to replace and fund a new one.
It doesn’t do any good to be Bloomberg’s best town in America to raise a kid if our kid’s lives are not protected during school hours. The town has let them down.
Two weeks before school started the town tried to get a SRO funded by the county. The Sheriff said they missed the deadline.
The town quickly found $125,000 to purchase property for future book shelves. The town website boasts we have SRO.
We have the equipment and vehicle to operate a trained SRO. It cost 56,000 dollars a year to fund one. That is 28 cents per day per student.
SROs also function as mentors and counselors to these kids.
We should be shouldn’t be playing politics with our kids lives.
[Ed Note: additional comments provided by Dr. Spalding]:
Many things came out of the debate last night. I was so very appreciative of the Mountain Business Association for asking the challenging questions. The MBA is an untapped member of our town and they should be included in more of our towns governmental bodies. Last night in my opinion, the incumbents of the Town Council failed to adequately give credible answers. Here is my comment.
First and foremost:
Getting a National Bloomberg award for having the best place in the country to raise a child is pure conceit when the council would rather play politics with our children’s lives by abandoning a SRO program. The Town is suddenly trying to force the county to hastily fund a SRO program only two weeks before school started is unconscionable and unprecedented.
The town has historically funded this position without interruption for 14 years in a row without question as to funding. At the recent meeting with the Sheriff, the county said they were too late even to enter an officer into the two week training program that was underway and denied their untimely request.
The former SRO quit in April. The town had FOUR months to fund this. However, the town did suddenly extol funding $125,000 for an unscheduled property purchase and rush a land trust but they could not fund a $56,000 SRO program to protect our children’s lives. There is no better example of more misplaced priorities of the majority voting members of our council. I would call this a gross mismanagement of the basic functions of a town.
In my opinion, we don’t deserve to keep that Bloomberg award and the members of the council should return that accolade back to New York unless they immediately make a meaningful and binding resolution that states this council will always fund or partially fund that SRO position in the future for perpetuity.
For the majority ruling council to suddenly decide to defund a SRO but champion unnecessary land protection that is not in immediate peril is just one of many reasons why I am running for town council.
13. Do you feel the plan for a catastrophic event on Signal is in place? Do you propose any changes to this plan?
Robertson: stated Signal Mountain falls under Hamilton County’s disaster plan, stated that the fire chief had recently reviewed policies and that Alexian and other businesses have a plan
Spalding: I have been in collectively involved in public safety for 41 years. I can tell you there is no local Signal Mountain emergency plan in place for residents to seek an approved shelter in advance of a storm or after a storm to house town residents in a major disaster. Even if our town tells you there is a plan in place there is no information on the website where to go, what subdivisions are designated to be directed to which locations or where to go if the primary structure you are assigned to is destroyed.
Hamilton County has a general county-wide plan but no building assets are allocated with approved generators or food supplies to take care of our residents in the event of a major disaster on Signal.
Councilman Bill Wallace tried to head up an emergency plan 4 years ago but was discounted by members of the council. For a plan to work, you have to have advanced notification months or years in advance sent by mail, emails, meetings or websites to inform the residents where and when is a safe time to seek shelter.
Many residents will ride out a disaster in their homes and ready.gov can help inform you what supplies are needed for survival.
This town has a lot of work to do in the future to protect its citizens with shelter. It is long process and I am up to the challenge.
Many times you only have less than 5 minutes of warning and putting hundreds or thousands of residents on the road at once is catastrophic in itself.
The new fire stations should be equipped with generators, there are two churches equipped with generators but they are not promoted to the public officially.
Allen: Remembers when Wallace volunteered and “everyone supported him” [Ed. Note: Wallace states he offered to help the then Town Manager and first responder person to lend whatever expertise he could; but never heard back from anybody]. She stated there is a problem with shelters from storms because we don’t want people to leave their houses during a storm [Editor’s note: she didn’t mention what might happen after a storm if houses were destroyed and shelters were then needed]. She stated the town depends on the Red Cross for disaster relief and that the town has an internal plan.
Howley: He stated he looked for the town’s disaster plan, but couldn’t find it – stated that we have capable police, fire and town manager. He stated he has full confidence in them to create and distribute a plan if there currently is not one. And that the town needs a plan for the town locally. He used the ice storm that shut off Mountain from County in late 90’s as example.
14. Explain how the school bond is being paid.
Spalding: Stated it is a good idea to pay down the bond early, but he wants to know about what happens to the tax when the bond is paid off
Allen: Stated “transparency is a priority” and that when the debt was paid off, if taxes are raised they would have to do it openly. She stated the bond would be retired by 2018.
Howley: Stated that revenue from the school bond tax can’t be used for anything else, while it is great that the debt is being paid down, the council can’t take credit since they can’t do anything different with the funds. In addition, taxes for the school bond increased because of the annexation of Fox Run and Windtree. He felt that, for the council to take credit for “saving over a million dollars” on the bond was either intellectual dishonest or showed a lack of understanding since the council had no other option but to pay the tax funds towards the bond. Don’t confuse this with the tax and revenue that was in place prior to school bond referendum which was used to lower the bond indebtedness [Ed note: and approved by the previous council]. He also felt that once the bond was paid, the tax should sunset and that town citizens should watch this carefully, especially since property taxes were raised in 2011.
Robertson: She stated that the debt limits the town and was a burden. [Editor’s note, I couldn’t follow her thoughts clearly on the rest of this to be honest] She mentioned that we may not have to use the entire 30 cents of tax for the bond, I believe she may have been referring to whether any of the tax would need to be continued after the debt is paid off, but I was honestly unclear on her answer. [Ed. Note: I should mention that four years ago when Robertson ran for re-election, she stated she saw no need for a tax increase until the debt was paid off and then we would see. That following summer she aggressively advocated for an increase in the property tax which passed 3-2, if I recall correctly].