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Mayor Gives Update on City Projects at Budget Retreat

Mayor Madeline Rogero reported the city is making progress on the redevelopment front, despite some potential obstacles ahead due to slow revenue growth in the city's general fund.

This morning's city budget retreat held for the city council started with the bad news first when city finance director Jim York explained the biggest source of revenue for the city--property taxes--hadn't grown much, due to very little growth in property values, and that the city isn't betting on the Hall income tax as a source of income after this state Legislative session. In addition to that bad news, York said that the 53 percent of city expenditures (from the general fund) goes to paying for salaries, healthcare benefits, and other personnel expenses, and those costs are growing much faster than revenues.

"I'm not expecting real dramatic growth," York said about property values and tax revenues. 

And that, he said, could become a serious problem.

"Think of it like a business. When your largest expense grows at a faster rate than what your largest revenue grows, you've got a potential issue," he said. "That's symptomatic of why we have these kinds of crunch things, because we're not seeing that kind of growth in property tax."

The city accounted for the payment of pensions, and is still only slightly under what the budget would have been had the payment not been made.

After that slightly grim start, the teams in charge of redevelopment around the city gave short progress updates.The mayor started the discussion by saying that while these projects will take years to actually complete, she is not looking to put her stamp on anything. Rather, she and her teams are looking at what kind of legacy they want to leave the city for future generations.

Bob Whetsel, the director of the Office of Redevelopment, reminded the city council that all the projects he was going to present have already been funded and are "well underway," though some are much closer to being completed than others. The point of Rogero's redevelopment plan, though, is "to move from disinvestment to invest at all times. And we think that by moving to public infrastructure investment, we can improve the city," Whetsel said. 

The mayor also talked about her belief that Knoxville's growth should be sustainable and smart, which includes making the city walkable, and encouraging density where appropriate. The Cumberland Ave. project, which led the discussion, seemed to exemplify the goals of each redevelopment district.

"Really, what we're looking to do here is to change from land use that's single-story, single-use to mixed-use redevelopment along this corridor that brings the intensity of the development up," said Anne Wallace, the Cumberland Ave. project manager. 

And the idea of mixed-use development (i.e. using buildings for retail, office space, and residential use) applies to other redevelopment areas like the Magnolia Warehouse district and the Downtown North district. The city hopes to achieve this by redesigning streets with mostly aesthetic changes to encourage more pedestrian activity. The idea is that when the city makes these investments, private investors will want to join the party because the area looks more attractive to potential customers. And the city is already encouraging investors with its TIF and PILOT grants to investors who will hopefully lead the way for more business owners to move to the redeveloped areas. 

Frequent downtown visitors will be happy to hear that the State Street Garage should be open this summer, complete with a bridge straight over State St. to Gay St. 

"We're on schedule," said Rick Emmett, the downtown coordinator. "It's been a very tough project--trying to do it in the middle of winter for one thing, [and] all the monthly parkers down there, transient parkers, visitors. I'm optimistically thinking that by April we should have the garage deck pretty much finished. We're hoping that sometime in June, maybe we'll have this thing open."

The Five Points project is also continuing in its process of redevelopment. Becky Wade, the director of community redevelopment, said moving from the Walter P. Taylor homes to duplexes and the redeveloped Eastport school has benefitted the area, and showed a before-and-after photo comparison of a building that was demolished.

"There's a lot of open green space," she said. "I know the police have reported, with the open space, there's not near as much crime as there was previously [in the area.]" 

City Councilman George Wallace pointed out that these projects and ideas are great, but that the city must be prepared to handle the financial burden they bring. But Rogero said the city is making efforts to reduce costs, and gave the example of the Civic Coliseum, where in-house crews are responsible for cleaning up after shows, instead of an outside company hired to do the work. 

Some other items briefly discussed include a new homeless plan in development, and the search for any available funding for a proposed safety center, though Rogero said the city has not committed to anything yet. The city is also waiting to hear what the state is planning for Lakeshore before it can make any formal plans, though there was discussion of demolishing unused buildings and turning the area into a park.

Rogero is scheduled to submit her budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year on April 26. A public hearing on that budget is scheduled for May 21. 

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