The growth dilemma

The growth dilemma

December 31st, 2011 in Opinion Times

Pressures of growth already felt

Leaders of Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments acknowledge the already urgent need to initiate road widening projects around Enterprise South industrial park that would cost, at minimum, an estimated $77 million, due to rapid industrial growth by Volkswagen, its supplier plants and Amazon.

Given the growing congestion around the industrial center - where 5,000 workers now sit in traffic congestion at shift changes - they also acknowledge that widening of Bonny Oaks Drive and Hickory Valley Road would foster attendant commercial and residential growth in both the city and unincorporated areas beyond its borders.

Yet at the same time, County Mayor Jim Coppinger and several leaders of other smaller municipalities seem loath to allow Chattanooga the ability to annex its natural tax base in unincorporated areas of the county to help meet the infrastructure costs for such growth. They seem equally oblivious to the logical alternative: Adoption of a county government home-rule charter, and consolidation of core countywide urban services and major infrastructure costs.

So we have to ask: Are this county's political leaders schizophrenic about growth and its inherent demands for public services? Or are they deliberately close-minded, for ideological or personal reasons, to the unfair burden they place on Chattanooga and its residents, who constitute fully half of county government's taxpayers, and who generally pay twice (once through their city taxes, and then through their county taxes) when the city and county "share" costs for major projects.

Knee-jerk opposition to city's burden

We raise this issue, again, because of the knee-jerk reactions of county officials and municipal leaders - in Signal Mountain (Mayor Bill Lusk), Red Bank (Mayor Monty Millard) and Lakesite (Mayor Ken Wilkerson), for example - who oppose Mayor Ron Littlefield's second request to open the countywide growth boundary agreement, and who fail to support the logical alternative, a stronger county government.

By their actions, these supposed leaders seem irrationally blind to the obvious need to reform the way the city, county and satellite municipalities operate and fund our local governments for our common, countywide good. They want the jobs and the benefits of growth for their residents, but they won't support fair distribution of the costs for the broad infrastructure that makes growth in jobs and amenities possible.

Resolution of the issue does not require hard, major changes. Nor does it mean intrusions on the current municipal boundaries of the nine bedroom municipalities that ring Chattanooga, or net tax increases for the 70 percent of county residents who reside inside our 10 municipalities.

Rather, the discussion that needs to occur is simply about the County Commission's responsibility to step up to the leadership role that, in the face of looming industrial growth, is now incumbent on county government. This responsibility requires a complementary good-faith effort, as well, by the leaders of the county's nine satellite municipalities. They have no apparent reason to oppose either a county government charter, or a revamped agreement on growth boundaries. Indeed, they would benefit from both.

Certainly they all bear responsibility for the broader community's ability to provide a higher level of core urban services that, under present circumstances, are now provided only by the city of Chattanooga, and its taxpayers, at the level that is required for major, new industrial and commercial growth.

County government's better option

Chief among the services that the county should provide are a professional 24/7 fire department; industrial strength police and sewer services; consolidation of our many small water utilities; a set of municipal-style codes; infrastructure capable of handling complex traffic signal systems, major storm-water control systems and municipal waste disposal; and comprehensive building, zoning, planning and land-use ordinances.

Several of the county's smaller municipalities have some degree of these services. Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank and East Ridge, for example, have full-time fire departments, but they are mainly bedroom communities that are limited in infrastructure and size, and they are essentially landlocked.

Collegedale and Soddy-Daisy, though mainly residential, have growth potential and more infrastructure capacity to serve growth than, say, Walden and Lakesite, which are smaller and more intentionally self-limited to a small residential base. Ridgeside is merely a contrived residential island on a farm-sized patch on the eastern slope of Missionary Ridge.

County government, for its part, lacks a full-time fire department and all the urban services, infrastructure and governmental authority of a charter/home-rule county government. So it is wholly incapable of accommodating insurable large-scale commercial and industrial growth in the large unincorporated areas of the county. It could not, for example, host a Hamilton Place mall in unincorporated, under-served areas. It could not service a Volkswagen or Alstom site, or any of the industrial plants along Amnicola Highway.

So while the county officials like to talk the game of growth, they have to rely on the city of Chattanooga to provide the infrastructure necessary for growth. Yet they still refuse to seek a county or home-rule charter. And for petty political reasons, they don't want to let the city expand its boundaries.

A mystifying backward view

Our county government's backward view is mystifying. Shelby and Knox counties adopted county charters years ago to provide for growth beyond their respective city boundaries of Memphis and Knoxville. Nashville wisely adopted a metropolitan form of government. Each of these larger metro areas allow satellite townships to keep their municipal authority and services, but they also allow a countywide or metro-wide tax base to equitably finance urban infrastructure outside of the corporate boundaries of their major cities.

That has fueled a higher level of growth and countywide and regional development. It has also prevented the sort of unfair, free-rider dichotomy that prevails in the unincorporated area of Hamilton County, where 30 percent of the county's population receives the lion's share of the countywide tax base that funds the county sheriff's patrol, volunteer firehalls, road maintenance and building and sewer bonds.

Residents of Chattanooga and most of the smaller municipalities pay for their own fire, police and road-work out of their municipal property taxes, and then pay, through their countywide property tax, for the services that the county provides only in the unincorporated areas.

Small wonder the under-taxed free-riders in the unincorporated areas deride the idea of annexation and paying municipal taxes. They already get all the benefits of neighboring municipalities' jobs, plants, stores and office buildings, roads to work, and the city's shopping and riverfront amenities. And then they return to their free-rider subdivisions, which are further heavily subsidized by an inequitable share of countywide property taxes.

That's unsustainable, especially if the prediction for the county to add another 40,000 residents in the next 10 years holds true.

If the County Commissioners, two-thirds of whom owe their office to city taxpayers and voters, will not pursue and adopt a county government charter and create and fund a countywide urban service system, the city of Chattanooga must be given the right to enlarge its boundaries to annex its natural urban tax base. For county commissioners and mayors of the bedroom municipalities to deny Chattanooga that authority is to commit, essentially, to an inequitable and financially stunted future for the entire county, a future that will inhibit growth, rather than prepare for it.