Leaders must accept responsibility for their actions
“What is wrong with Kingsport?” It is absolute heresy to even utter those words. If you do, you are a nay-sayer who will not see the good, a “glass half empty kind of guy.” Yet, when we face the type of financial difficulties seen in the recent City budget process, a thinking person would at least stop and ponder that question.
Actually, I think Kingsport has much to offer. Therefore, perhaps this is the wrong question. Instead we should ask, “What is wrong with the process that got us into these difficulties?” The problem is not the place, it is with the development and execution of public policy. The problem rests with us.
In the twenty years that I have been a part of this community, I have come to understand that Kingsport has a certain way of doing things. Surprisingly, it doesn’t really generally reflect the much vaunted independent spirit of the Scotch-Irish heritage. Rather it is more akin to the cautious maneuvering through a complex bureaucracy where the imperative is to be part of the team-to go along and get along. Perhaps this is the real legacy of our large corporate-industrial background.
More than once I have heard, “That’s not the way we do things in Kingsport.” What that really means is that we do not ask the “hard questions.” We do not want to make anyone feel really uncomfortable. And when you do, people generally stand back aghast.
When I was on the BMA, I commented that I was “a little disappointed” in a presentation, because it did not give us the information we needed. Afterwards I was chastised for even that small degree of dissent in public. My response was, “Well, I guess its a good thing I didn’t say what I really felt.”
It is all well and good to portray a positive and united front to the world. We do have a great community and we should be proud of that. However, behind closed doors we need to be very hard-nosed in the analysis of our performance. If we have fallen short, and we have, we must hold ourselves accountable.
I find it interesting that my generation bemoans the fact that our society seem to have lost its sense of responsibility. Everyone is a victim looking for someone else to support them: entitlement programs, disability, healthcare, mortgage assistance-you name it, we want it.
It is always “them” that is the problem. I am sorry to say, it is not them, it is us. Our leaders, and sadly I count myself among them, refuse to accept responsibility as well.
One of our Aldermen recently asked, “How could this happen” (meaning our City’s financial decline) It is really very simple, we did it. The BMA voted time and time again to spend money and now it has run out. We did not dig deep into things that on the surface made little sense. We did not ask the hard questions because that is not our ethos.
It is time for someone to stand up and say, “It was me. I did it.” So I will start. “It was me.” I helped fuel our problems by leading the efforts to build a redevelopment plan for Kingsport. While I feel that there is much good that has come of it, on the whole I consider the results of my efforts to be less than positive.
I say this because I helped teach our leaders how to spend money. A key tool of redevelopment is the ability to use tax money to incentivize the re-use of dilapidated property-Tax Increment Financing. Under redevelopment legislation this is a very controlled process, only to be used in very specific instances and only after a series of public hearings.
This was used to help turn the old Kingsport Mall into East Stone Commons. But the lesson was not that we could use public policy to heal our eroding Urban Core, what our leaders learned was how to spend money trying to get someone to locate here. In effect, we tried to buy prosperity, in much the same way we tried to annex our way into prosperity.
Consequently, one of the reasons why we have a lack of growth in property tax is because we gave it away. We have given tax breaks in several forms to virtually every new commercial and retail development. We justified it by stating that the increased jobs and sales tax revenue would be worth it. That has proven to be a wrong. We should admit it and fix it.
Our problems are our own. The City’s revenue shortfall is not because we can no longer annex and grab easy tax revenue. It is not because City residents pay taxes to the County that some seem to think ought to go to City coffers. It is not because people work in Kingsport but live outside the city limits.
Simply put, we have a structural problem with our budgetary policy: we spend more than we bring in. While we condemn the Federal government for its excesses, we do exactly the same thing at home.
If we are ever to truly find a solution, we must admit what has happened and take responsibility for our actions. In addition, we must dig into what went wrong. Assume no one has the answer. Question the input and advice. In short, we should stop acting like corporate bureaucrats and start acting like the stubborn pioneers we once were.
If we continue to avoid accepting responsibility, to hold no one accountable, we are condemned to the same results over and over.