Knoxville to state: Get us some money and leave us alone

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Mostly, what legislators heard at their annual breakfast with city officials is that Knoxville wants the state to help pay for a new treatment facility and otherwise stay out of city business.

Yes, they’d like the state to help foot the bill for a behavioral health urgent care center (formerly called the safety center). The sheriff and the police chief and the attorney general and the city and county mayors all want this facility, which they say will take the pressure off the Knox County Jail by removing mentally ill inmates and substance abusers from the jail population and placing them in a short-term treatment facility.

But Mayor Madeline Rogero politely informed the local lawmakers that what she wants most from Nashville is for the state to stay out of the city’s business.

She doesn’t want any “deannexation” laws, and said the city of Knoxville has not attempted any involuntary annexations for more than a decade.

“The prospect of allowing deannexation for properties that have been part of the city and receiving city services and investment for more than a decade raises complicated legal and financial questions that would likely take years to resolve” is how a handout summarizing the city’s legislative wish list put it.

City officials would also like for the state not to attempt to regulate short-term rentals (like Airbnb), and refrain from interfering with the city’s ability to jumpstart redevelopment projects by using tax abatement tools like TIFs and PILOTs.

The majority of the lawmakers present pledged their support for the behavioral health urgent care facility, led by Sen. Becky Massey, who outlined a three-pronged plan to get it done, with her preferred option being for the governor to include it in his budget from the get-go. Plans B and C would be a “backup” bill she and Rep. Eddie Smith are sponsoring and, as a last resort, a budget amendment. The general sentiment was that chances are good that the state will support the facility, which is also strongly supported by county Mayor Tim Burchett this session. Rep. Bill Dunn said he’d like to hear more specifics.

There was little pushback from the lawmakers until Rogero brought up diversity.

“We consider diversity a strength,” she said, citing the difficulties North Carolina ran into after its Legislature passed a so-called bathroom bill. She said North Carolina’s losses were other localities’ gains, including Knoxville’s.

“We got an event because of that … Please keep Tennessee opening and welcoming,” she said.

This plea struck a nerve with Dunn, who said the North Carolina legislators were forced to act to counteract an ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte. He said he believes in “the diversity of the individual,” and cautioned against telling people how to run their businesses. Rep. Martin Daniel told Rogero that he hears complaints about the city disregarding property rights and being “ultra-regulatory.”

“If you want us to keep our hands off, only do that which is minimally necessary.”

Rogero said her administration has streamlined a lot of processes in order to make the city business-friendly.

Police Chief David Rausch, who gave the final presentation, stayed with the “hands-off” theme, asking the legislators not to decriminalize marijuana and not to interfere with civil asset forfeiture laws.

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