Tennessee town of Philadelphia is fighting just to exist

Tennessee town of Philadelphia is fighting just to exist

May 29th, 2012 by The Knoxville News Sentinel in News

Volunteers Kelly Brewster, left, Keith Russell, Jason Goddard, and Dale Collis spruce up the Philadelphia city park last week in Loudon County. The expense of maintaining the park led some on the town council to consider selling it or trading it for other property.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

PHILADELPHIA, Tenn. -- The fate of Philadelphia is in the hands of a small group of citizen volunteers battling financial burdens that threaten the tiny Loudon County town's very existence.

The town was almost counted out four years ago when it couldn't find anyone to run for mayor or other offices. Volunteers stepped up to lead the town, but as another election looms, future leadership remains uncertain.

At a Loudon County Commission Budget Committee meeting earlier this month, the Philadelphia fire department was criticized for poor response to mutual aid calls. Committee members also said they were concerned about the financial health of the community.

The committee recommended that the county no longer provide $23,000 in funding for the fire department.

With one convenience store, one motel, a couple of used-car dealerships and the flagship Sweetwater Farms Dairy, the 1.6-square-mile town doesn't have much of a tax base, admits Mayor Paul Stallings.

"We're like a lot of small towns without a source of revenue," he said.

Stallings said he learned only last week about the recommendation to withhold funding for the fire department. Loss of the county funding would be a big blow to the town, he said.

The fire department provides an important community service to the 500 or so residents in the town and many more in the surrounding area, Stallings said. The town has applied for grants to build a new firehouse that would be available for use by the EMS units stationed in that part of the county, he said.

Commissioner Sharon Yarborough said she made her decision not to recommend funding of Philadelphia's fire department because of her overall concern for the stability of the town.

"We decided not to fund them until we felt more comfortable with the direction they are headed," she said.

County Commission Chairman Roy Bledsoe, who represents Philadelphia, was the town's first mayor after it incorporated in 1967.

"I don't think it's fair to single out just one community," he said about the recommendation against funding the fire department.

The recommendations of the budget committee will be presented to the entire commission, along with the county budget. Bledsoe said he hopes to know more by the time the budget comes up for a vote.

Stallings said he, his wife and a dedicated group of local volunteers have worked hard to keep the town from fading away during the last four years.

In 2008, when an election deadline approached and there were no candidates for mayor, there was speculation that the only recourse was to abandon the town charter.

Stallings said he volunteered to run unopposed for mayor in the last election because he didn't want to see the town disappear. If the town is going survive, it will be because other concerned residents step up, he said.

"We've been trying to get more citizens involved in helping us keep the town running," he said.

The town has hosted several events, including a fall festival, concerts and a chili cook-off, to try to raise money, boost town spirit and encourage community involvement.

Stallings, who works a full-time day job, said he has not yet made up his mind whether he will run again.

Whoever takes over will have to contend with the same financial issues that have dogged the town for years.

According to the 2011 state audit, the town's expenses of $107,600 exceeded revenue of $95,575. Philadelphia has only two paid employees, one of whom, the town recorder, is Stallings' wife, Anita. She is paid $60 per month.

Audits for 2009 and 2010 criticized the town for not reconciling bank statements every month and on several occasions spending as much as $14,025 over the approved budget.

The 2010 audit also found that, because of the small town staff, certain duties were being performed that are not compatible. The person who handles cash receipts should not record the payments to the accounts receivable ledger, the report said. The 2011 audit indicated that accounting practices have been improved.

The responsibility of the town's other paid employee is to mow the grass on the town-owned land. The position is being considered for elimination because of budget shortages, Stallings said.

"We're hoping that we can get volunteers to help us with the mowing in the future," he said.

The town tried hiring a police officer to provide a better response to local calls and to generate revenue through traffic tickets. The plan backfired when most of the tickets that were written were thrown out of court, he said.

If there is one jewel in the crown of Philadelphia, it would have to be the municipal park. Taking care of the park's ball fields, tennis courts and wooded picnic areas was a big budget item, Stallings said.

The expense of maintaining the park led some on the town council to consider selling it or trading it for other property. Locals like retired Judge Bill Russell, who had worked to have the park built with government grants back in the 1970s, balked at the idea.

"We felt the park was the only tangible asset the town had. A lot of us have a lot of memories there," he said.

Volunteers led by Russell and businessman James Purdy have agreed to maintain the park at their own expense.

Philadelphia has at least one other important asset -- its history, Stallings said.

The town was first founded in 1820 and has a pre-Civil War legacy that includes use by the Underground Railroad.

Philadelphia also was the site of the largest Civil War battle in Loudon County. The 150th anniversary of "The Affair at Philadelphia," as it is called in some history books, will take place in October 2013.

In 1863, Confederate cavalry routed a Union brigade in an action that set the stage for the Battle of Knoxville. The town has heard from Civil War re-enactors who are interested in using local land for their activities, Stallings said.

Philadelphia has five positions -- mayor and four aldermen -- on this year's ballot.

John D. Drinnon, a pastor with the Word of Faith Family Worship Center in Loudon and current Philadelphia alderman, has registered to run for mayor.

"If we don't have community involvement, the city is destined for failure," he said.