Engineer challenges growth assumptions

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

A consulting engineer warned Knox County Commission that current development patterns are guided by false assumptions “which put the county on a dangerous path to financial ruin.”


Lee Muller, who lives in West Knoxville, spoke during public forum at the Jan. 24 commission meeting. The county’s mistake, he said, is promoting residential construction in hopes of generating property tax revenues.

“The Planning Commission looks at each new project without consideration of other projects already in the pipeline, or the costs of roads, sidewalks, electric power, gas, water, sewer, police, fire, and emergency services.

“These (new) homes are not coming close to paying their way.”

Not surprisingly, Muller’s message was not received warmly by the commissioners. Randy Smith, Charles Busler and Kyle Ward challenged parts of his presentation.

Muller said his research is ongoing and he welcomes help. Here are his findings:

  • Each dwelling unit in a new subdivision or apartment complex generates $1,540 in property taxes. But the average cost to the schools is $5,690 per household.
  • Every 10,518 new residents require a Sheriff’s patrol officer and vehicle. The average cost of new policing is $450 per household.
  • Every 10,500 new people require a new fire station and a new ambulance and crew. A fire station costs between $3- and $4.5-million to build and equip. The average cost of fire protection is $1,270 per household.
  • A new ambulance, fully equipped with advanced life-saving equipment, costs $325,000, and requires two EMS technicians for 2 or 3 shifts.

“These new service costs mean the county is losing more than $5,000 per new household, every year, just on education and emergency services.

“That does not include the costs of new roads and utilities. KUB and First Utility have told Knox County they cannot keep up with water and sewer,” he said.

Commissioner Randy Smith said Muller had not considered increased sales tax and the “spending power” of each new home.

Commissioner Terry Hill asked how many years after a new home is built does it start generating a positive cash flow.

“Never,” said Muller. “You’re falling $5,000 short on every unit every year. You’ll never catch up.”

Commissioner Kyle Ward said, “So, you’re recommending higher density, high-rise apartments and things like that?”

“I am recommending that you follow your sector plans and growth plans, rather than let people come in here and get an exemption from them,” said Muller.

Commissioner Charles Busler said Knox County taxpayers do not pay for fire protection or water and sewer. But Muller quickly countered that private utilities are passing increased costs to residents. Then Busler said without growth, “we have nothing to offer businesses;” their employees need places to live.

Muller said there is no population growth in Switzerland and yet residents have a high standard of living. Sure enough, “the google” reveals the population of Switzerland has been declining since 1995 and that is expected to continue. Yet Switzerland ranks second and the United States ranks sixth in gross national income (GNI) per capita. You can trust me on this or follow this link to see the chart for yourself.

Muller is going to be around for a while, I suspect. His conclusion: “Knox County is putting the taxpayers deeper in debt and pushing property tax increases onto the next set of officeholders. These decisions are making Knox County a bedroom community for Blount County and Anderson County, and heading Knox County towards bankruptcy.”

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.

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