The Daily Post-Athenian hosted its 2020 Athens City Council Candidate Forum on Tuesday night.

The event featured the three candidates for two seats on the Council — Jordan Curtis, Eric Morrow, and Frances Witt-McMahan — on the eve of the start of early voting for the Nov. 3 election. The candidates were asked a series of 10 questions and concluded with closing statements.

The DPA is featuring a five-part series during the early voting period, which continues until Thursday, Oct. 29. The series will include each candidate’s answer to all questions posed by DPA Editor Dewey Morgan during the forum. Each part of the series will group between two and three questions together based on similar subject matter.

The following is the second part of the series and includes the second and third questions of the night, both of which related to the project to consolidate Athens’ four elementary schools onto a single campus.

The entire forum is available to view any time on The Daily Post-Athenian’s Facebook page.

The candidates’ responses are listed in the order they were asked during the forum.

Question: It has been discussed by the current City Council that a property tax increase may be needed to supply the necessary funding for Phase 1 of the school consolidation project. Would you support such an increase in the next budget? If not, how else could this additional funding be obtained?

Answers:

Morrow: “That’s a good question, Dewey. I think all three of us have heard that throughout the community. My stance on it right now when it comes to property tax is just a flat no, not going to raise property taxes. We’ve got too many families in this community that are hurting right now. I’ve been neighborhood to neighborhood throughout City Park, North City, Ingleside and there’s too many families out there it’s just purely hurting right now. You’ve got single parents out there trying to make ends meet. You’ve got families that are trying to make ends meet. I brought this up in the last forum: I’ve talked to people that, due to COVID, they’ve still not received their unemployment checks from the state. You have people still struggling from that. In a flourishing economy, which it will be tight to say we have a flourishing economy due to COVID right now, I just can’t sit up here and honestly say that I would raise the property taxes for the people of Athens when it comes to this. Now, as to finding a way to take care of the school funding, that’s something that, I’m one voice out of four other people if elected. We all five have to work to common ground to figure this out. I’m going to give credit to Frances, at the last forum, she said that’s just something that’s going to have to be looked at down the road when it comes to this. It’s something that’s going to have to be voted on or possibly be voted on, looked at and discussed among the other five people sitting on the Council next year when it comes to fruition. Jordan said it best in the last forum: We’re entering into groundbreaking time for our city school system. I almost feel, from my personal opinion, that we’re putting the cart before the horse at this point. We’re doing groundbreaking; we’re doing all this startup and there is no clear and defined way how we’re going to pay for this yet. It’s not a gimme (to me) per se that we’re going to raise property taxes at this point. As Jordan pointed out, we’ve got three Council members that sit up there adamant saying they’re going to vote for property taxes, but … we need to really consider what the people of Athens; the situations they’re in. It’s hard out there for people right now. It’s something we’re going to have to work on and look at, but not right now. It’s a no for me.”

Witt-McMahan: “As I’ve said before, I will not put myself in a box to say that I would vote for the property tax. I think, at this time, we have to understand that so many things could change between now and when that vote would come. First of all, with a little bit of prayer or a whole lot of prayer, I hope there are other ways. And full transparency, I don’t particularly know a specific way that I would try to find that money, but I do think that, by working together with the other Council members, doing some research and going out to other communities and other cities; finding out how they managed if they were able to build a school project without raising the property taxes. I think there’s still a lot more that we need to find out before we make that decision. So, I won’t put myself in a box to say I would, but I will not say that I won’t if that was the only way that we can make sure that our children have a sufficient school.”

Curtis: “I like history. I’m a student of history and I think that, oftentimes, you look back far enough, you can look and see into the future of the present. As I said last week, we cannot make a longterm decision — a 40-year decision — over a temporary short-term condition. I was sitting here thinking about how Ingleside School was built in the 1930s — I believe 1935 if I had to pick a year. So, what was going on at that time? The Great Depression. It was the worst economic time our country ever experienced, but at that time, we were investing in a school building. If I’m elected, I want to look at the financial modeling for the school project. Rates are extremely low right now. I know that the permanent financing for the school project is locked in at just a tick over 2% and I think we may even be seeing some downward (movement) on materials costs. So, I’m going to look at all that within the context of what a decision needs to be on a property tax increase, but regardless, I think we’ve got to do what we need to do to get this school building project finalized because the shovel’s going in the dirt in December like we’ve all discussed. And I think that investment is going to generate so much for us — young families, property value growth over time. I hit on these numbers last week, but I want to reiterate these one more time. The current property tax rate in the City of Athens is $1.26. Our closest peer from a population standpoint that has a city school system is Greeneville, and it’s property tax rate is $2.18. Our other peers in the area are higher, as well. Cleveland — $2.06; Alcoa and Maryville — $2.27; Oak Ridge — $2.56. And I’ll just finish with this because I think it’s very important, Dewey. If it comes to a moderate property tax increase, we can still be extremely competitive to our peers because I will commit to the voters of Athens that we will always be competitive from a tax standpoint to attract business.”

Question: Upon completion of Phase 1 of the school consolidation project, would you be committed to Phase 2? If so, how quickly would you like to see the second phase begin?

Answers:

Witt-McMahan: “Yes. If Phase One is completed, I don’t see any reason why we would not move forward with Phase Two. The plan was put together in one plan and I think, if we’re going to move forward, we need to do it all at one time. Just because one is completed doesn’t mean that other building is going to be OK. So, I think we need to move forward with the plans that have been made. I would be committed to start as soon as the funding is there; as soon as everyone is able to meet and sit at the table and make that decision. But I don’t see any need to hold up on moving forward if we complete Phase One.”

Curtis: “This is an excellent question and I think there are two prongs to the question. Number one, I think that I’d want to talk again about the financial modeling and I would want to make sure that we’re still within the realm of what’s affordable from a modeling standpoint to move forward as quickly as possible. I think, as long as there’s not a funding concern as far as moving forward in the quickest way possible, that’s what I would consider. Then, number two, and we talked a little bit about this last week, but I think that Phase One is going to allow the opportunity to look at how the traffic flow is going to be around this large project. So, I think we need to be sure that we’ve had enough data to plan the traffic flows to where we can be making the best decisions for that 40 years out as we move forward. Those are a lot of tough conversations as Frances and I were part of the ground floor of these discussions on the Council Advisory Committee as far as traffic goes. So, we need to be sure that we evaluate all that with the people that live in that City Park area. I’ll just close by saying I was fortunate to be part of that group at the Council Advisory Committee — a group made up of appointees from all the City Council members with a lot of diverse opinions as we had a lot of these tough conversations and brought those forward to be consumed and get feedback by the larger populace of the City of Athens, So, certainly funding and make sure we have enough time to digest all the traffic information.”

Morrow: “I would say yes, most definitely we’d want to move on to Phase Two if the funding is there. I think all three of us agree the funding has to be there before we can move to Phase Two, but like most City Council members, like any person, when you start a project — if you’re familiar with doing projects — once you start it, you want to keep progressing. You don’t want to lose that momentum in going forward. The moment you start losing that momentum, you start doubting what’s going on with the project; more questions come up about how you do this or how you do that. Another thing … we’ve got to look at these building materials. I’ve heard this discussed many times within the City Council study sessions collaborating with the school system. It’s not going to get cheaper on these materials when it comes to building these schools and, if the funding isn’t there, it’s going to make it hard. So again, as both of them elaborated, we’re going to have to have some serious discussions as a City Council because, ultimately, we’re making decisions for the city on how to fund this project for the Athens City School Board on top of that. It’s just going to come down to some hard decision-making processes, but I would be in favor of moving forward with Phase Two once Phase One has completed, yes.”

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