J.C. envy could lead to more ‘McMansions’ in Kingsport

Robert Houk • Nov 4, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Deciding how local government should best use its precious tax dollars always makes for a good debate. Stretching those limited tax dollars has been a priority of municipalities ever since federal revenue sharing came to an end during the Reagan administration.As a result, things like public-private partnerships have become somewhat common. These partnerships allow a government or other public entity to join with the private sector to provide a service to citizens. These relationships, however, can only exist if both parties find them beneficial.Sometimes, critics argue, these partnerships are too heavily weighted to profit private businesses. Why should taxpayers be expected to make shareholders of these companies rich? There is also the concept of local governments offering financial incentives, such as tax breaks and infrastructure improvements, to lure businesses and industries to their corporate boundaries. The idea is the city will benefit from the new jobs and tax revenues created by these enterprises.Of course a problem with offering such incentives comes when cities use them to entice giant retail box stores to the community to compete with and often bury homegrown mom-and-pop stores that received no such public money.The city of Kingsport will soon undertake an interesting twist on the concept of incentives. For many years, cities have used federal and state grants to help poor and lower-income citizens find affordable housing. Now, the Model City wants to help build “McMansions” for the well-heeled of its community. In what can only be described as Kingsport’s latest bout of “Johnson City Envy,” city leaders there have decided they are tired of corporate executives and other high-income earners who work in Kingsport buy and live in expensive homes in Johnson City. It shouldn’t be surprising to Johnson Citians that Kingsport City Manager John Campbell is behind this novel concept. We watched him wheel and deal in the private sector many times when he served as city manager here in the 1990s.It was a go-go economy then. Johnson City was undertaking many capital improvement projects (the Millennium Centre being one), and Campbell was confident they could be funded by the residential and commercial development boom Johnson City was enjoying at the time. Unfortunately, the tech bubble soon burst and Campbell decided (quite abruptly) it was for time for him to retire.Now, Campbell wants to get into the home-building business. As Kingsport Times-News staff writer Matthew Lane reported in a story last month, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen has given Campbell approval to create a $600,000 fund to be allocated to home builders and developers for streets and sidewalks in subdivisions with at least 16 lots — houses with a price tag of a minimum $400,000.It’s an interesting concept, and one I’m sure other cities facing a similar situation have tried. Even so, the idea is as one commenter on the Times-News website put it: Attempting to “socialize all the risks and privatize all the profits.” Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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