Short Takes: Taxpayers foot bill for fire calls, and Georgia wants state parks to turn profit

Short Takes: Taxpayers foot bill for fire calls, and Georgia wants state parks to turn profit

May 31st, 2013 in Opinion Times

Patten Towers in Chattanooga

From a luxurious past to low-income present

Patten Towers, when it opened its doors as Hotel Patten in 1906, was one of Chattanooga's first "skyscrapers," and it was hailed as "fireproof."

The $1 million, 11-story, luxury hotel -- complete with ballroom -- was the largest of its kind here, and it was intended as a $1.50-a-night home away from home for travelers debarking trains at the newly built Choo Choo Terminal.

In recent decades, however, it has been a nonluxury government-subsidized housing facility for the low-income, elderly and disabled. It was something that has always seemed an odd use for a unique building on a piece of prime real estate in the heart of downtown Chattanooga.

It also seems an odd use of something so integral to the city's storied past. But put the use question aside for a moment and consider the fire issue.

The claim of fireproof must be at least partly true, because in the past decade, firefighters have been called to the Patten Towers low-income housing facility about once a day every day. And fire crews have fought several fires -- yet the building still stands.

Such was the call Tuesday night at 10 p.m. This time the basement was engulfed in flames believed to have sparked from underground electrical conduits. The basement filled with smoke and 1,500-degree flames.

All 241 residents had to be evacuated. They won't be able to move back for days -- at the very least. From the outside, Patten Towers shows no sign of fire. It looks just as it has for the past 35 years.

But through those years -- especially the past five years -- fire trucks have regularly circled the block around the tower. Most of the fire calls have been false alarms, triggered, according to news stories, by everything from rodents and bugs to ill, disoriented or angry tenants.

Almost every time, because of the building's age, height and inhabitants, the Chattanooga Fire Department rolls out all the big guns -- six engine companies. Each of those full-on responses costs taxpayers an extra $530. The total tab was about $204,300 in 2012. It was more than $622,200 for 1,174 calls since 2010.

The building's owner, PK Management, is a nationwide management company specializing in Section 8 affordable housing properties and "Low-income Housing Tax Credit" properties, according to PK Management's website. The company has four offices in Cleveland, Ohio; Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Greenville, S.C. and Raleigh, N.C.

The website states the company employs "over 525 employees nationwide and we are growing fast!!"

Isn't it time Chattanooga took back one of its oldest buildings and stopped subsidizing a management company's profit?

Isn't it time the poor elderly and disabled residents were moved to a more appropriate setting without 11 floors and constant fire alarms?

Park cuts and unrealistic demands

If Chattanooga is hemorrhaging money on unchecked fire calls to a privately owned building, then Georgia, in taking publicly owned parks and insisting they turn a profit for the state, is swinging the pendulum of public money handling a bit too far in the other direction.

The Georgia Assembly wants the state's parks to pay their way -- or better.

And in the case of Cloudland Canyon, the closest big Georgia park in the Chattanooga region, the profit it already turns goes to defray costs at other parks that don't.

The trouble is this: Government is not free. It is a service taxpayers pay for. Sure we'd like government to run like a well-oiled watch and not cost too much. But these parks are ours already. And now lawmakers are cutting things that taxpayers actually might enjoy in the parks we own and pay for. And in Georgia's case, the savings is actually being outsourced.

While Georgia cuts jobs, the state contracted with an out-of-state private company to manage the park lodges and golf courses.

Huh?

Tell us again how this helps Georgians?