One of the interesting and fun things about being a candidate for office is the fact that people come to you and ask your opinion on things. Makes sense, I guess. I’m trying to be elected to the Legislative Branch of Knox County government. In the course of the campaign, I’ve had the opportunity to offer my opinion on issues of the day in a few places. I’ll share more about those when they come out. But, I find that if I’m writing an answer to some question that is asked of me, I have more to say about some things than the venue permits. So I’ve had to provide some shortened answers in those situations. But here at my campaign website, the space is unlimited. Therefore, I’m going to take some of these questions I’ve gotten, do some long form answers to them and put them on the ol’ campaign website. Enjoy.
One of the big issues percolating at the County Commission is the proposed deal for Knox County to “buy” the East Tower at the Tennessee Valley Authority complex at 400 W. Summit Drive in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Part of the deal is also to acquire the Summer Place complex. The cost is about $14 million. I wrote a little bit about this here. I put “buy” in quotation marks because it’s a complicated arrangement where Knox County will take possession of the property through an easement. The administration has explained that they can’t buy the property outright because it would have to be put up for auction by the TVA to do that.
The beginning rationale for doing this deal is that the Jacobs administration wants to move the School Board out of the Andrew Johnson Building (AJ) at 901 S. Gay Street in downtown Knoxville. They have a preliminary agreement to sell that property to a developer out of Nashville once the School Board is out.
So, option number one for the Jacobs administration is “buy” the TVA East Tower, move the School Board there and then sell the AJ. Straightforward enough at first blush. But there are some hiccups.
First hiccup is how they’re buying it. The aforementioned easement arrangement. Since Knox County is not going to be the owner of the property, the Tower comes with a requirement for federal security standards for entrance to the property. Essentially, this means that moving the School Board to the East Tower will make it harder for residents to get access to the Board and its employees.
Second hiccup is that the School Board may not be legally permitted to move to a property that is not wholly controlled by the Board. So the easement nature of this “purchase” puts in jeopardy the ability of the School Board to make the move. This is the opinion of the Knox County Law Director and his opinion is, not surprisingly, at odds with the Jacobs administration. The resolution of this issue appears to be coming down to a potential opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General, which they have not yet received.
Option two for the property is that they still want to “buy” the property. If the School Board cannot or will not move there, then Mayor Jacobs expressed his intention to move some other government offices to the TVA East Tower. They seem to believe that this is such a good deal that they need to go ahead with the “purchase” of the property and then they will figure out how to make it fit after the fact.
The first hiccup is the same for option two. Increased security standards makes it harder for residents to access Knox County government offices. To me, the administration’s answer to the hiccup is some variation on “it’s not as big a deal as you’re making it out to be.”
The second hiccup for option two is that moving some select number of other government offices to the East Tower splits up government offices into two locations. This could hamper the ability of certain offices to work with one another. The administration’s answer to this hiccup is that it’s not too far to walk if you need face to face meetings and, in any case, it’s the 21st century and technology is capable making sure that everyone can do their jobs with no impediment.
I think the main problem with the “purchase” of the TVA East Tower is that the administration has looked at this as a “good deal” and has pursued it relentlessly without regard for how the deal will affect the running of Knox County government and the access of Knox County residents to their government. They’ve got it all wrong. I think the priority should be for Knox County elected officials to try to make government work well. Not make deals which are “too good to be true” (an actual quote from an exchange at the County Commission working session on January 21, 2020).
The final vote on this “purchase” is scheduled for the Commission’s meeting on January 27, 2020. There are legal issues and red flags galore in this “purchase.” If I were voting, I would vote no.