Revenues & Expenses
Q: I am curious if you have any ideas about how to potentially increase revenue or decrease expenses so that the Town isn't always raising taxes.
Thank you for your question. This is an area that needs much of the town council's focus. I believe our fiscal issues are not likely to be revenue-driven. We currently have the 3rd highest property tax rate in the Hamilton County area of the suburb municipalities (and rising) and our property values are generally high and have been increasing. There are ideas that could bring additional streams of revenue, but many of these have been declined in the recent past, and I am not certain whether citizens would wish to revisit those.
I believe our main issue is how we spend money. We need to spend more efficiently. This means assessing whether we have better options for providing services or completing projects and not being tied to "business as usual". The second part of this is aligning our spending with the usage and desires of our town residents.
I'd love to give you specifics on this, but we are really missing the key piece (that is representation of all citizens through active surveying) - we need a much better understanding not just of the usage of various projects and services, but also the value of those to the citizens as a whole.
I suppose the best that I can do is give you a theoretical example. A year or two ago, we finished re-paving the trolley tracks in Old Towne, a project decided on, I believe about 5 or 6 years ago. Let's assume this is an issue coming up today (obviously that money is spent now). Those trolley tracks cost the Signal Mountain taxpayers some amount of additional money over simply re-paving the road. If that issue came up today, it would need to be in the annual survey. We need to understand:
Whether the citizens prefer trolley tracks or asphalt. In all likelihood, the majority prefers trolley tracks to asphalt (me too!).
We need to be able to value how important those trolley tracks are to those that desire them. This is tough to do, but there are a couple of ways:
We can value it relative to other services the town provides (i.e. ranking potential services and projects, "would you rather have trolley tracks or soccer fields?", or even better: "you have $100 to spend, how would you spend it from this list of projects" and then list the projects with their relative costs)
We can value it by providing the cost of the project per household ("would you pay $1,000 to have the trolley tracks?" - I have made these figures up for the purpose of this example).
Let's just say in this example that people preferred trolley tracks overwhelmingly, but overwhelmingly said they would not pay $1,000 to keep them, and do not prefer it to projects and services of similar or lower cost. Then this project would not pass the efficiency test and should be rejected (that doesn't mean it couldn't be partially or fully privately funded). Again, this is theoretical, I'm not suggesting this is what the survey would have found.
It is easy for the councilmembers to say "we must increase taxes because of x, y, and z cost increases;" however, cash is fungible, and every dollar spent elsewhere (even in the past) on services and, yes, capital projects, is also part of creating that "need". The hard part is learning to prioritize our expenses, be innovative on how we provide services and complete projects, and, yes, having to deal with saying "no" to things that are not priorities on the whole. So if we fail to provide services and complete projects at the lowest cost, fail to innovate in how we provide services, and fail to prioritize the projects our citizens desire the most, we will always have a need to take a greater percentage of the taxpayers' money (or otherwise generate additional revenue). This, to me, is why evaluating our expenditures is critical to healthy town governance.
I hope that provides some light to your question - again, I am sorry I really do not have any specifics at this point. Specifics will require a thorough survey of our citizens and the ability to dig into more details as to how we currently spend money.
Please feel free to contact me if I can explain it better.
Q: I LOVE that you want to try and get feedback beyond a small group of citizens. I suggested just a few years ago that it would be great if the Town held semiannual public meetings to provide updates and take questions. That's free.
When I suggested sending a postcard to each Town resident to have them rank issues/projects with option to write in something else and mail back or drop off at Town Hall, the response was that it was too expensive.
A very good suggestion on town meetings. Specifically, in between potential events like that, we can use online tools or a mailer. I believe an online tool would have very good participation. Perhaps an online tool plus an ability to pickup a paper form (both are no cost).
It is interesting to me your mailer idea was shot down. We have so many areas we dump 1,000s into that aren't as necessary to me as understanding the desires of all of our citizens. Town Council meetings are not effective at this for so many reasons.
Q: You mention that you desire to represent young families. I am retired and no longer have young children at home. I like your ideas on surveying and representation of all citizens, but it seems to conflict with your stance on young families. How will you represent me?
Thank you, this is an awesome question. Thank you for pointing this out.
Yes, I intend to represent young families. Here is why: I know none of the current council has elementary school-aged children. Families with elementary school-aged children are a large group on our mountain, and they generally cannot and do not show up at town council meetings. This group utilizes and has different needs from other families on the mountain. For example, our young families are active users of our sports fields, our gym, the MACC, and the pool. Other families on the mountain that show up more routinely at town meetings are less likely to understand the current issues with that group's usage of those town assets. I'm aware that the other candidates may have had children in this age group in the past, but these issues continue to evolve as our town grows, particularly in today's COVID-19 climate. For example, I have heard from multiple folks that our sports fields and town gym are often overcrowded and it is difficult for teams to schedule practices (and this has been my experience as well), as well as many other issues with the town assets our young families utilize.
How does this relate to representing all citizens? I intend to give a voice to those young families; however, I believe our town council should be voting more in line with the desires of all of our residents rather than basing their voting and decisions off of their own personal experiences and desires and those of their group of friends. This is why it is critical the council adopts a more active and fully enfranchising method of hearing citizens' preferences. As for me, if the rest of the council will not adopt these policies and attitudes, I will. I will send out online surveys to find out the desires of the citizens that I do not know personally.
So, as it relates to an issue for young families, for example, let's say more funding for fields. My personal thought is we need this, and I would bring it up as an issue to the council and be able to clearly articulate that need. However, in order to spend responsibly and keep from continual tax increases, we must match spending with the priorities of our citizens. So if it turns out from an effective and encompassing poll that fields are not a priority of our households on the whole, I will raise this issue, but my vote would be against additional funding (and we could begin the process of securing private funding).
I believe this process change in the way our town does business, even when it results in votes against funding for things young families prefer, is the right thing long term for young families in this town because currently the tendency is for us to not hear or represent young families at all. So, this change in process will represent them more as well as set up better governance for benefitting each household and neighborhood with how money is spent.
Independent School District
Q: What are your views about an independent school district on the mountain?
I am opposed to revisiting the independent school district discussion.
While I am in favor of pursuing anything that a majority of the citizens of the town would wish for the council to pursue (you can find more details on my website here under the "representation of all citizens" section), it is unlikely that anything significant has changed in the past few years that would lead to different findings and conclusions. Renewing the effort would not be an efficient use of the time or money of the town, even if the majority of citizens were in favor of taking a look, which should be a requirement to these investigations. Bringing this subject back would only serve to divide our town again.
Q: What, if any, is your plan for attracting, welcoming, and supporting a more diverse group of people to our community?
While this question is more of a social issue at its nature (there is not a lot the council can do to encourage this as it relates to people's attitudes toward one another), two things come to mind here for me:
I'm aware that we are generally opposed to development as a town (I understand the issues with sewer, etc.), and I understand the merits of these positions to current residents. However, there are unintended consequences to these decisions. One of them is that it will suppress the supply of housing on the mountain, which will keep property values (and the cost of moving to our mountain) very high. While this clearly benefits current residents, it will tend to have an unintended consequence of being less-inclusive, and would only serve to dampen our growth in diversity.
At the risk of speaking in generalities that will undoubtedly not apply to single individuals: On the social side, as someone that grew up here: as our town becomes "younger," I am witnessing it becoming much more accepting on the whole. My generation was raised by the baby boomers, who taught us to be accepting and loving of others, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. For the vast majority of folks my age, our parents taught us these values. For those whose parents did not teach them these values, they very often learned them from their peers. I intend to represent this group of young families on the council, and to the extent we can promote things that are attractive for young families to move to the mountain, we will generally attract similarly-minded individuals and a more diverse group of families to our town. Making our town the best it can be for young families will make us a more accepting and diverse town. I personally have witnessed already significant changes in our town's attitudes toward diversity from when I was a child. But we must continue to improve in this respect. We can continue to accelerate this change by welcoming and attracting young families into our numbers.
Sidewalks & Accessibility, Representation
Q: Will you prioritize working with communities to add sidewalks and other accessibility amenities to the non-Old Towne neighborhoods and areas?
There is already a plan in place for this; however, I cannot say whether I will prioritize sidewalks, as I will seek out the priorities of all of our citizens first before deciding what should be prioritized. I discuss this process in more detail on my website here: https://www.andrewgardnertowncouncil.com/principles. If sidewalks are a priority of our citizens (I think that they are from discussions with many of you), I will fight hard for them.
This is a great point you make, though. I think we need to eliminate these cases where we appear to favor one small group of citizens over the rest by changing the way our council does business. Right now, we rely on these 5 proxies for your opinion to decide these matters. While I believe they seek to do right by you, they ultimately base their preferences and decisions off of their own preferences, those of their small set of friends, and those that are able to show up at town council meetings. I grew up in Old Towne, and I have a special appreciation and sentiment attached to it. It is a wonderful, unique place, but it is a very small fraction of the mountain. We have spent additional preserving trolley tracks there and sidewalks, which we have not done (but I understand have plans to) elsewhere. Now, maybe if we poll the citizens we would have found out these projects are priorities of the majority, but I find it bothersome that we didn't even ask.
My concern here is not these projects, but rather that the PROCESS of our governance needs to improve. We must be actively surveying our citizens and asking the right questions to understand their desires and preferences. Our current way of doing business will always yield itself to councilmembers attempting to represent all citizens when they unintentionally are not. This is a human nature problem, and we need to fix our processes to fight this.
Forest Fires and Climate Change
Q: As I watch in horror at California burning, and I reflect on Gatlinburg’s terrible fire a few years ago, I have been thinking how more development on Signal Mountain would decrease our likelihood of escaping such a fire and wondered what plans council candidates have to address climate change? It seems to me, after last year’s terrible drought, that we need less development and better roads.
Please note I was not sent this question directly, someone sent me this question posed by another resident.
There is no doubt these fires are great tragedies. We have a close friend that lives in Gatlinburg, it was a very scary time for her (she had to evacuate), and her home was very nearly impacted. I am not an expert on the matter of causes and spread of forest fires and traffic patterns for evacuations. To the extent there are remedies that could reduce the impact of a fire or make evacuation easier, we need to work more actively with our State government to make sure we have plans for this issue.
On climate change, there is not a whole lot we control as a town (we don't have any heavy industry), but we can do our part to minimize our impact. One idea on how we can improve is to change our recycling service. It is great that we have the recycling center to promote recycling; however, I think we could see increased recycling (and less usage of traditional garbage service) if we to picked up recycling at folks' homes. I lived in Atlanta several years ago and this is how they did it. Yes, it is a completely different situation there (much more dense population, higher taxes), but I believe our municipality was PAID by the service that picked it up at that time, because the service could sell the recyclable waste to manufacturers. I also know that the economics of those things have changed recently (i.e. plastic bottles continue to get thinner, reducing the yield to recyclers), so it is likely we would have to pay for this service. So, this additional service would need to be evaluated through a survey to understand how much our taxpayers value that additional service relative to other things we can do with tax revenues. But I believe we need to ask these questions of our citizens and not be satisfied with "business as usual."
The points you make on development here are well founded, but a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, additional development would mean more cars would need to evacuate, but this is not the only effect development has on this equation:
Commercial development means fewer miles traveled by residents to run their errands on a routine basis, as we would have more options on the mountain for grocery, retail, and restaurants, which would likely reduce residents' carbon footprints.
In the long-term, limiting development means we are less likely (or slower) to attract state dollars to expand or add additional ways up and down the mountain, so we would have to evacuate under our current roads.
Though not a desirable effect, development means trees in the town get cut down. I could be wrong about this, but my guess would be this would limit at least the speed at which a fire could spread.
Development means additional property tax monies, which could be used to improve services like recycle pickup.
Again, I believe all of the citizens have the right to determine their collective vision for the town, and the council should implement the most coherent version of that vision regarding development. Development has negatives and positives, but we need to do a better job of (1) surveying all citizens to understand their desires regarding development and (2) laying out all of the positives, negatives, and unintended consequences of our development options so folks can make informed decisions.
Q: I want to know if you are willing to treat the money that comes out of my pocket with as much care as your own.
The current and previous councils have spent large sums of money on projects that benefit only a small fraction of residents. For example, over two years' worth of paving budget for the entire town was spent on a two-block stretch of concrete airplane runway, er, I mean road, near Alexian Village. Another example is the six-figure "investment" into the 100-year-old former school building that now houses the MACC.
Did you support or oppose the above expenditures? Why or why not? If similar high-dollar infrastructure projects are proposed in the future, will you support them? Will you continue to sink money into a decrepit century-old building? If so, how do you propose to fund these activities? Are you willing to increase my taxes, as well as everyone else's, to fund your pet projects? Or will you have the conviction to vote "no" on wasteful spending?
Please note I was not sent this question directly. Someone passed this question along to me (it is not from the source):
I understand your frustration.
I will do better than treat town money as if it were my own, I'll treat it like the citizens' money. Part of the issue you have raised here is that councilmembers have naturally thought fiscal responsibility means treating it like their money. When they treat it like their money and spend it as they would, they spend it on their interests and the interests of their small group of friends, no matter how hard they try to represent you. As laid out in more detail above, we need more active surveying to understand citizens' preferences so that these things do not happen, or if they do, we know they were the right decisions or at least informed decisions.
I cannot say whether your opinion in this matter is unique or close to representative of the majority of citizens, because we've not sought out the opinion of all of our citizens in a more fully-enfranchising method. Personally for me, my family has used the MACC, and I grew up in Old Towne, but that doesn't mean I would agree to the cost of those projects were those to be considered today, and that there couldn't be more effective ways of providing the same service. There has certainly been a lot of great volunteer effort and work that has gone into the MACC, and the historical society of Old Town, as I understand it, offered to cover the extra cost of the concrete. To me, where we can improve is that we've relied on 5 proxies as a placeholder for your opinion. Again, I believe these councilmembers were doing their best to represent you, but they are human and do it from their perspective, which means it will have a bias to their opinions and usage of town assets and those of their group of friends.
This is why we need to adopt active surveying of households to understand their preferences and the value they place on projects and services.
Commercial Development & Businesses
Q: What types of business and restaurants do you personally want to see here? How will you attract new businesses and restaurants to Signal?
A great question. So, I actually have a good bit of personal experience in this matter as I work for a hospitality company that owns and operates restaurants.
Personally, I would love to see more local businesses and restaurants up here. It would be very convenient, and would present additional revenue opportunities for the town rather than relying on tax increases for residents.
So, I'll speak from my personal experience as a restauranteur with this question. McDonald's just closed. While some of its issues may have been management and personnel-driven (I do not know specifics other than health scores), McDonald's is typically one of the first concepts you see able to survive in a smaller town due to their very low food and labor cost structure. When McDonald's cannot survive, other restaurateurs and retailers will typically run the other way because it indicates a significant lack of commercial activity. Signal Mountain does actually have the metrics you would want to see for some restaurant concepts to move here (we have a small population, but also a wealthy one), but when McDonald's cannot make it, it is a damning indicator of the amount of money consumers are going to spend in that area.
I fear the reality up here is that we have trained our residents to do their shopping elsewhere. Policy-wise, I believe we have in many respects dug this grave ourselves. I understand the benefits of our land use plan and limiting development (i.e. it keeps property values higher, it keeps the "small town" feel we love), but there are unintended consequences to this. Recently, we opposed a grocery chain coming to the mountain. I prefer local entrepreneurship over national chains like many residents, but we are training our citizens not to spend their money up here, but rather to drive down the mountain and spend it elsewhere. After all, what more routine retail experience can you imagine in your life than groceries? When people go get their groceries off the mountain, they also eat at restaurants off of the mountain and frequent other retail outlets off of the mountain. In the restaurant business, we often build our restaurants near high volume grocery stores as they are a center of commercial activity. We are also depriving our town of the potential for additional revenue when we unintentionally depress commercial activity, further pressuring our need for tax increases.
I am not opposed to this strategy of limiting development - I believe if a survey of the citizens shows that is what the town wants, then it is what we should pursue. However, we could certainly do a better job of being more aware of the consequences of these decisions so that we can prioritize effectively.
One other issue that I have heard repeatedly from businesses up here is how difficult it is to attract and retain reliable, quality employees. Potential employees from off of the mountain will generally not seek jobs on the mountain because 1) it is a decent drive and 2) it is not an area they think of to seek employment. So we are heavily reliant on those that live on the mountain. Our high property values limit the availability of an hourly workforce from those that live on the mountain, and again, a consequence of limiting development is higher property values. As a result of these factors, businesses up here struggle with having enough economic activity to have desirable revenue volumes as well as hiring and retaining quality labor. Business owners will not seek to invest in that kind of environment. They learn from how current businesses perform and struggle.
Q: I'm a somewhat new (2 years) resident of Signal Mountain. I was wondering what your position was on the James plaque, given that the town council chose to delay any discussion/action on it until after the election.
Thank you for your question.
This is an interesting topic. My view is that the park on which the plaque rests is the residents' property. To the extent the residents on the whole desire to have the plaque removed from their property, then we should remove it. We can discover our residents' preferences on this and other matters by improving our method of governance by using the internet to actively survey our citizens rather than relying on those that are willing to be vocal at town council meetings. You can find out more about this process on my website here: https://www.andrewgardnertowncouncil.com/q-a.