Is Knoxville a dead city walking?
There are statistical indicators that Knoxville is heading down the path of the Last Mile, the Green Mile, the Last Roundup.
At the same time, there is an old saying: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” For example, there’s a recently released “scientific study” that claims that dinosaur flatulence caused prehistoric global warming that may have led to the dinosaurs’ extinction.
The extinction claim may depend on dinosaurs’ irritation with each other’s lack of manners. But I digress.
East Tennessee is a terrific place. People who live here almost never want to leave, and those who move away inevitably want to, or do, return. However, there is a difference between enjoying and even loving this part of Tennessee and believing that the city of Knoxville as it exists today will be here 10 or 20 years from now.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill
In Knoxville, finding anyone who votes is getting more and more difficult as the years pass.
One way to judge a population’s interest in its city’s future is by examining its present interest in local elections.
Low voter turnout can be good for candidates (fewer direct mail pieces, not as many phone calls, a smaller number of people to convince)—but it’s bad for the community’s health.
Twenty-five years ago, former State Senator Victor Ashe was matched up against former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree when the two battled for the mayor’s office. Nearly 35,000 people went to the polls. About 5,000 fewer voted in 2003 when now-Governor Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero ran against each other.
Eight years later Rogero and Mark Padgett between them spent more than $1.1 million, a Knoxville record—and 21,268 people voted.
That number is several thousand short of filling Thompson-Boling Arena. In non-mayoral election years, city voter turnouts are roughly equal to attendance at a Tuesday night bowling league.
“USA Today has come out with a new survey: apparently, three out of every four people make up 75 percent of the population.” – David Letterman
In Knoxville, 100 percent of the population today is about exactly what 100 percent of the population was 30 years ago. In some ways that’s not bad. But when it comes to paying for the ever-growing costs of city government, fewer hands make the burden heavier.
Here are Knoxville population figures since 1980:
- 1980: 175,049
- 1990: 169,761
- 2000: 173,890
- Present: 177,761
In comparison, Knox County had 319,000 residents in 1980 and 438,000 in 2010. One could argue that the county population doesn’t grow to that degree if the city isn’t here, but that’s only if one likes to argue.
“I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.” – Jackie Mason
Knoxville’s better off than that, but for how long?
Ten years ago, the operating budget for the City of Knoxville was $130 million. The proposed 2012-2013 operating budget: $180.5 million. This is a $50 million increase in a decade when the population is essentially the same size as in 1980.
The city’s debt is just under $186 million. One heavy weight is the convention center’s continuing debt. The debt service on the convention center alone in 2012-2013 will top $10 million.
On the plus side, overall debt service payments are slightly under 10 percent of the general fund budget. Ten years ago that figure was close to 18 percent.
The population is stagnant but the costs are growing for government services, employee pay and pensions, and citizen desires. Somewhere in the future is a breaking point.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” – Woody Allen
Cities are no different from an organism; like Woody Allen (and most of the rest of humanity) they don’t want to die. People who enjoy living inside the city limits will not want to see it vanish. But what will that attitude be a decade or more from now?
There are legal aspects to a city’s life and death, but when debt and population stagnation are combined with voter apathy, the long-term outlook is problematic.
The precipitous decline in voter interest over the last 25 years doesn’t suggest—it shouts—that most of Knoxville’s residents are a lot more interested in the TV show Survivor than the survival of their city.
As attention wanes (and there’s nothing to suggest this won’t continue) the number will grow of people wondering why they’re paying anything for city government. Many who don’t care about the city will care about the property taxes they’re paying for law enforcement, parks and recreation, a finance office, fleets of city vehicles, a law department, a tax office separate from the county, and more. (Does this mean Metro Government? That’s yet another column.)
This doesn’t mean that the city isn’t doing important things. But if a city falls on the taxpayers’ pocketbooks and no one wants it to, will it make a sound as it dies?
The result: Demolition by action or neglect.
Knoxville isn’t now walking the last mile—but that last mile is visible on the horizon.