Residents statewide would have the final say the next time their mayor wants to build an arena, football stadium or convention center if a newly filed state bill clears the Tennessee General Assembly.
State legislation introduced by rookie Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, in the House, would force local governments in Tennessee to get approval from voters before moving forward on projects or facilities that would create debt that totals 10 percent or more of the government's annual operating budget.
Harris, a former Memphis city councilman who is the Senate's new Democratic leader, said the idea is to generate greater public input for projects that require cities to pay off debt years down the road. He pointed to Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton's current proposal to redevelop Memphis' fairgrounds, a plan that calls for $176 million to cover the cost of a new amateur sports complex and more public dollars for a hotel and other development.
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Closer to home
Locally, the law would impact any Hamilton County project that cost more than $67.2 million -- 10 percent of the county's $672 million budget.
And County Mayor Jim Coppinger said that could hamstring the county's ability to be financially agile when building new schools or other large projects.
"There are some huge disadvantages to that bill. It would definitely change the financial strategy, because right now we move on these things according to how the market's going," Coppinger said.
Slowing down the process could cost taxpayers more money, he said.
"To have to wait to go to referendum, we'd have to wait to go to market and taxpayers may end up paying a higher rate [on bonds]. And then you've got the cost of holding the referendum."
The city of Chattanooga would have a much lower threshold. Projects with price tags at or over $21.6 million would have to go to a referendum. City spokeswoman Lacie Stone said Monday Mayor Andy Berke was still reviewing the legislation.
The only project on the city's horizon that would be affected by the proposed law would be the Wilcox Tunnel renovation. The city hopes to match $25 million for a federal grant to build a second tunnel. Stone said no other projects on the city's plan would meet the threshold.
Staff writer Louie Brogdon