During a forum earlier this month, a half-dozen Oak Ridge candidates running for Anderson County Commission said they support the county’s law director, the defendant in a controversial ouster suit, while four others said they are reserving judgement.
A few candidates said the county’s property tax rate ought to be lowered, while others argued that officials have done a good job of holding the rate as low as possible.
Several agreed that the county needs to work on attracting more jobs, affordable housing, and retail.
All five of the incumbents seeking re-election in Oak Ridge’s three County Commission districts face challengers in the August 7 election. Voters will elect two commissioners in each district.
The most crowded race is District 7, where incumbent Jerry Creasey is seeking re-election but Commissioner John Shuey is not. There are six candidates in that race. Besides Creasey, they include Jimmy Bouchard, Mike Marsh, Denny Phillips, Kevin Rice, and Theresa Scott.
District 7 includes the Glenwood, Highland View, and Pine Valley voting precincts in Oak Ridge.
There are four candidates in District 6, which includes the City Hall, Robertsville, and West Hills precincts. Steve Mead and Whitey Hitchcock, the two incumbents, are joined in that race by Anthony Allen and Joey Anderson.
Meanwhile, in District 8, incumbents Robin Biloski and Myron Iwanski are being challenged by Myra Mansfield. District 8 includes the Woodland, Emory Valley, and Hendrix Creek precincts in Oak Ridge.
The incumbents have presented, at least in part, a unified front, touting their recent accomplishments, including on satellite county offices, a veterans service office, and the General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge, as well as through the county’s contribution to a Roane State Community College expansion in Oak Ridge. They also said they’ve dealt with jail overcrowding, helped the Emory Valley Center, and unanimously approved tax increment financing for the Oak Ridge Mall and Woodland Town Center projects, among other things.
“We are a diverse group, yet that diverse group matches the diversity of concerns within Oak Ridge,” Hitchcock said.
But the challengers suggested there could be more work to do, including to bring additional businesses to the county and spur industrial development.
“We need businesses here,” Marsh said. “If we have good jobs, that solves most of the problems.”
The ouster suit filed against Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager by a group of residents in May has divided top county officials. During one forum this month, the first question asked of the incumbents and their challengers was whether they support Yeager.
Biloski, Bouchard, Creasey, Iwanski, Hitchcock, Mead, and Scott all said they support Yeager or suggested they would. Some said the law director represents the entire county.
“His work is always honest, diligent, and he provides a great asset to us,” Biloski said.
Bouchard said Yeager does his work in an unbiased manner, but his loyalty to Anderson County and not the mayor’s office has left him open to attack.
“It’s personal political bias,” Bouchard said. “I think that this law proceeding will vindicate him fully.”
Yeager has suggested Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank is behind the ouster suit, pointing out that the petitioners are using a Knoxville attorney that Frank has used in other legal proceedings. But the mayor has called that suggestion a “disservice to the petitioners” and added that she is not funding the ouster suit and is not one of the petitioners.
Hitchcock said Yeager works for the county much more than 40 hours per week, even though his wife has had brain surgery and received chemotherapy.
“Even under great attack by forces in the county, he continues to present impartially,” Hitchcock said.
Iwanski said Yeager is independent and respected by other elected officials.
“Jay has done a very good job for Anderson County,” he said. “He provides a service that keeps us out of the courts.”
Mead said the law director doesn’t “come in with his agenda.”
“The only places where we’ve had legal issues is where Jay was left out of the loop or had short notice,” Mead said.
“He’s simply doing his legal job,” Scott said.
But four challengers said they have serious questions about Yeager, can’t comment yet, or will wait to see what the courts decide.
“It’s not going to decided by commissioners sitting in there,” said Phillips, who said citizens brought the suit and it will now be decided in court. “To sit here and say I support a man or don’t support a man, it’s reckless.”
Marsh said he doesn’t have enough information and comment yet, but he would work with Yeager and every other commissioner.
Mansfield said the county has been receiving negative publicity, apparently because of bad decisions by Yeager. There is nothing “on the table” that says commissioners will retain or support him, she said.
“At this point, I don’t think that is a pertinent question,” said Mansfield, who pledged to work with Frank.
Allen said he has some serious questions about Yeager.
“We should not jump to any conclusions one way or another,” he said.
Taxes, top issues
The candidates differed on taxes. Allen called it the biggest issue in Anderson County, saying some people are considering moving because of the high property tax rate.
“We definitely need to lower our property taxes in an incremental way,” Allen said.
Phillips said he’s talked to real estate agents, and access to retail is their top concern. The property tax rate is second, Philllips said.
“That’s where we are perceived to be lacking,” he said.
Mansfield also said the property tax rate needs to be reduced, possibly by as much as three to five percent per year.
“Together, we could make a difference in attracting new homeowners,” she said.
But Iwanski said the county has done well at holding taxes as low as possible. Knoxville residents have a higher combined city-county tax rate, he said.
“Our biggest competitors are already higher than us,” Iwanski said. The difficult part is maintaining services, while holding down taxes, he said.
Mead said there has been a continuous reduction in property taxes, and the county should maintain its course. He said the tax rate is down more than 30 percent in the past 10 years.
“You are actually paying a much lower rate than in the past,” said Mead, who called for keeping residents safe while keeping taxes as low as possible.
Others ventured in different directions when asked about the biggest issue facing the county.
Bouchard called for a proactive, aggressive approach to job recruitment and industrial development.
Mansfield called for a plan for industrial development.
Biloski advocated for a creative use of tax dollars, especially with more state mandates, including to house state prisoners for less than “full price,” and education mandates.
Hitchcock said retail development is the most important. District 6 is the fastest-growing, he said.
Marsh focused on economic development.
Creasey focused on increasing the number of jobs and retail options in Anderson County, and keeping the tax rate low. One of the main issues may be a perception problem, he said.
Scott has plugged the potential benefits to Anderson County of Lake City’s recent decision to rename the town as Rocky Top. That could lead to more retail, hotels, and restaurants, and lower taxes, she said.
The new Kroger Marketplace shopping center in Oak Ridge also gives the city a spark, Scott said.
Anderson and Rice were not able to take part in the two forums, one hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge and the other by the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. See the 2014 Election and Opinion sections for more information on the candidates and additional election coverage.
Early voting started July 18 and ends Saturday, August 2.