The Primary Results Are In…

Friends: Thank you for an incredible win tonight! I’m grateful to have received over 74% of the votes in today’s Primary Election and humbled by the level of bipartisan support this campaign has garnered. Since June 1st, I’ve walked 125.41 miles to meet with voters across District 2 and listen to what matters most to them. I look forward to taking this campaign city-wide and engaging with voters throughout Knoxville. I thoroughly enjoy my role on City Council and can’t wait to continue serving my hometown.

Special thanks to my team – Chris Barber, Jack Vaughan, Lisa Carroll, my wife Sarah and ALL of our wonderful volunteers for working tirelessly to knock doors, make calls and boost awareness of this campaign. Onward! #TeamRoberto


Knoxville’s Budget Debate: Fact vs. Fiction

Recently, there’s been some discussion about Knoxville’s debt and whether the city is responsible with your tax dollars. If you listen to some, you might start to question if Knoxville is experiencing an economic freefall coupled with an unfathomable budget shortfall. (Spoiler: These claims are false and intentionally misleading.) Ensuring that Knoxville is on a responsible fiscal path is one of the promises I made to you four years ago and something this City Council has worked hard to deliver. Before being sworn in, I committed myself to learning about the city’s budget and how to keep our city on a successful financial track. With all the disinformation swirling around, I want to take this opportunity to talk to you directly about Knoxville’s stable financial position.

The City of Knoxville has two mechanisms to provide long-term economic stability:

  1. Economic Stabilization Reserve – A resolution from City Council that requires 20% of the general fund to be held in reserve. In the 2021/2022 fiscal year that reserve fund = $50 million.
  2. Unassigned Fund Balance – In addition to the Stabilization Reserve, 5% of the general fund balance is reserved in the city’s unassigned fund balance as an internal finance policy, representing a portion of the general fund that has not been assigned, restricted or committed to any specific purpose. In simple terms, this is a fund that the city does not plan to spend, similar to a savings account. In the 2021/2022 fiscal year this 5% = $13 million.

As a result of these two economic stabilization mechanisms, Knoxville has $63 million in reserves for FY2021/2022.

Having these stabilization mechanisms in place has allowed our city to maintain a AAA bond rating, which is similar to possessing a very good credit score. In fact, our strong bond rating allowed the city to refinance some of our long-term obligations and save taxpayers $5.4 million in 2020 alone.

Next, let’s examine the city’s debt. The city’s current total debt is $173 million. That’s down from a high of $261 million back in 2004. Over the time to date that I have served on City Council, the city has reduced the debt by almost $56 million. A Moody’s Sector Profile on Knoxville from May 2021 (graph below) analyzed Knoxville’s debt burden as compared to the local government’s tax base. This report revealed that Knoxville’s net direct debt as a percentage of full value has decreased and is below the 2019 median for all U.S. cities.

(Source: Moody’s Sector Profile (Cities & Counties) dated May 10, 2021 & Moody’s Municipal Financial Ratio Analysis database.)

The largest single line item of debt is, of course, the Knoxville Convention Center which is being paid off ahead of schedule, and is down to $80 million, with more than $24 million paid off in the last four years.

Another area to consider when measuring Knoxville’s fiscal health is pension obligations. Our city attracts and retains good public servants through a variety of incentives, including pensions. However, an underfunded pension is bad for workers and is a drag on a city’s overall economic health. Knoxville updated the city pension back in 2013 and plan H is fully funded. Plans A, B, C, F, and G are legacy pensions, and as of 2020, are 77% fully funded. The 2021 update will be available in October and is predicted to indicate that legacy pension plans are 80% funded. The unfunded portion of the pension is drawn down by about $20 million per year and is scheduled to be fully funded in 2037. By comparison, Knoxville’s responsible pension approach is the envy of other municipalities. For example, Chattanooga Fire and Police is only 49.9% funded, while Nashville and Memphis are responsible for multiple plans which range from 0% to 60% funded.

Knoxville’s fiscal position is strong and continuing to flourish. I am proud to be a part of a City Council that manages your tax dollars responsibly. I will continue to work hard to keep Knoxville on this responsible path and protect your trust. I am committed to continuing our work together; to reach out, listen, build bridges, and continuing the work you hired me to do.

Continuing Our Work Together: Why I’m Running for Re-Election

In 2017, you hired me to represent the second district and all of Knoxville on City Council. Since then, I have worked hard to learn the job and effectively harness that knowledge and experience to connect citizens with much needed resources throughout our community.

Together we have made progress, but our story is still being written and I believe there is more for us to expect from our future. -AR

Over the past four years, I have been a neighborhood advocate, a champion for a more walkable and beautiful community, a supporter of a clean and healthy environment, an advocate for affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, a proponent for responsible public safety, worked to build community bridges, pursued policies to reduce underage beer service, and championed economic development and job growth. I’ve updated my website and welcome you to visit the accomplishments page to see some of the specific ways that we’ve made progress together.

Together we have made progress, but our story is still being written and I believe there is more for us to expect from our future. That is why I picked up a petition on Monday, March 22nd to launch this campaign. I am excited to continue to serve you on City Council, because the job isn’t finished yet and my experience as an effective member of City Council will allow us to meet the challenges of the next four years. We’ve been through a lot together. You know me — you know how hard I work for you and for Knoxville. You know my record — let’s continue our work to build a better future together!

To learn more:

Health Board Abolished; Resurrected After Pandemic

Although this headline seems like it’s from today, it was actually appropriate a century ago. In 1907, the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, led by the Knoxville Delegation brought and passed a law entitled “An Act to Amend the charter of the city of Knoxville, Tenn., being Chapter 207 of the Acts of 1907 of the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee and all Acts amendatory thereof.”

This Act transformed the City of Knoxville’s government and replaced the powers of the Mayor, the Board of Alderman, and the Board of Health, among others. All powers were then transferred to a newly created Board of Commissioners. The Act went into effect on December 30, 1911.

Special thanks to our City Council Staff and Angela Hopper for locating this Ordinance.

Image: Looking north on Gay Street towards the Farragut Hotel, 1919
(Source: McClung Historical Collection)

As a consequence of the 1907 Act referenced above, the Board of Health was abolished effective December 30, 1911. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Knoxville Board of Commissioners brought back the Board of Health of the City of Knoxville in 1919. In fact, the original language of the ordinance restoring the Department of Health was to take effect in 17 days, but that section has a line drawn through it and hand written above the ordinance we see “immediately” inscribed. Taken together in all, the hand written amendments could be interpreted as an indication of a sense of urgency from our past legislators’ concern for public safety.

One reason why this headline seems like a current event and not one from Knoxville’s past is that HB0007 was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly in November 2020. The bill “specifies that the county mayor has the authority to establish and implement health policies that affect the entire county during a county-wide health emergency; directs the county health director, health officer, and health board to provide advice to the mayor to develop polices.” You can follow the bill’s progress here. The bill would strip local Heath Boards of their powers and transfer them to the County Mayor.

In December 2020, Knox County Commission voted on Ordinance O-20-12-101 which would remove powers from Knox County Board of Health by a 6 to 4 vote with one abstention. The vote on the ordinance was only the first of two required votes to pass County Commission and would remove the board’s ability to create polices and alter the Board’s authority to advisory only. The second, and final, vote on this change could come as early as Monday, January 25, 2021. You can explore the language of the Knox County Commission ordinance here.

It is important to draw on our history to better understand our current challenges. Since March 2020, there have been more than 40,000 local infections and sadly we’ve lost 431 of our neighbors to COVID-19. I implore my colleagues on Knox County Commission to vote no on this proposed Ordinance, stripping the Knox County Board of Health of its powers. Now is the time to unite and act judiciously on behalf of our community. History will remember what we do today – I support Knox County’s Board of Health and call on you to do the same.

Institutional Sign Standards and Why It Matters to Neighborhoods

On Tuesday, October 20th, City Council will consider a freestanding sign standard proposal for the Institutional District (INST) that offers a comprehensive resolution to size, height, and illumination of signs in that District. This proposal was created through a collaborative effort of neighborhood and community organizations and was considered by Planning Commission at the their September 10, 2020 meeting.

A Brief History of Council’s Action:

Members of City Council and the public have expressed a desire to participate in determining appropriate sign requirements in the Institutional District (INST) through Council’s legislative process. This interest began when the newly created Institutional District (INST) was drafted at first without any sign standards. When the public and members of Council raised this issue, the Institutional District (INST) was then given the same standards as Commercial and Industrial Districts by the consultants. It is important to note that there are no Commercial or Industrial uses in the Institutional District and the Institutional District is the only Special Purpose and Overlay District without its own freestanding sign standards.

Prior to the passage of a new zoning ordinance on August 13, 2019, Council was assured that sign standards would be provided for Council’s approval before the new ordinance went into effect. When no action was taken, Council, through a Resolution passed on September 24, 2019, requested that Planning Commission consider and make a recommendation to City Council regarding sign standards in the Institutional District. As 2019 was drawing to a close and without a proposal to consider, Council then issued a 120 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on December 17, 2019. In Spring of 2020, a proposal was still not produced so Council issued a 90 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on April 21, 2020.

In an effort to move the legislative process along, Council held a workshop on July 9, 2020, where Council again expressed a continued desire to participate in the legislative process and the need for additional options.

A Comprehensive Approach is Preferable:

The option for a free-standing sign standard in the Institutional District (INST) is a preferable option as it addresses not only the illumination of signs, but the type of signs permitted, and the size of permitted signs. Further, as private offices are allowed in the Institutional District, passing this option is preferable as it closes a potential loop-hole where an office use could be allowed to have commercial or industrial signs which would otherwise not be permitted in the Office District (O). Finally, this option is preferable as it provides appropriate sign standards for all uses in the District while insuring needed sign flexibility for healthcare facilities with an emergency room through a master sign plan.

The Institutional District Isn’t Just for a Campus-Like Setting:

One argument that Council has heard several times is that signs in the Institutional District should not be a concern because the District is limited to an area of 5 contiguous acres and is for large “campus-like settings.” The assumption is that since there are not many properties that could meet this very narrow threshold, Council should not be concerned about future rezonings to the Institutional District. This point was made specifically by Planning Staff in comments and recommendations to the Stakeholder Advisory Committee on April 22, 2019 and to Council many times. However, Section 8.2 of the current zoning ordinance is clear that the Institutional District is to have a minimum size of five contiguous acres but may be composed of lots of various sizes with a minimum lot size of less than half an acre. It’s important to note that when efforts to fully address concerns in the Institutional District were unsuccessful during the zoning ordinance update, the word “contiguous” was added by Council to offer some protection from the sign standards as drafted.

This means that a composition of 20,000 square foot lots, with different owners and therefore not a unified or campus-like setting, may be rezoned to Institutional District so long as the lots meet the contiguous five-acre requirement. The 5-acre argument therefore gives little comfort as our city’s sign standards are based on lots and not area, meaning that each lot, not each 5-acre area, has its own individually allowable signs.

Illumination Isn’t the Only Issue:

Sign standards in the Institutional District allow for internally illuminated signs as well as dramatically different sizes and types of signs which are more appropriate for commercial and industrial uses. Currently, in each lot zoned Institutional District you can have pole signs in addition to monument or column signs. The maximum height of detached signs can be up to 35 feet and 220 square feet in size down to 10 feet tall and 100 square feet in size. After considering that signs are based on lots and not area as discussed above, imagine the potential sign clutter from 10 contiguous half acre lots with at least one 10-foot-tall pole sign that is 100 square feet on each individual lot.

The difference between commercial and industrial signs and non-commercial signs is dramatic when we consider that in the Office District only monument and column signs with a maximum height of 6 feet and a 36 square foot sign area are permitted. Further, there are no permitted internally illuminated signs in the Office District.

Given the uses available in the Institutional District (INST), including broadcasting facility, community center, educational facility, public safety facility, and healthcare facility, it was important to provide more flexibility in the type and size of permitted signs in the District. As such, the proposal is more generous than the Office District (O) but not as generous as the signs allowed in Commercial or Industrial Districts. The proposal allows for signs from 6 feet to 15 feet in height and from 36 square feet to 65 square feet based on the roadway type adjacent to the property. Further, the type of sign is limited to monument and column signs and there is an option allowing healthcare facilities with an emergency room to internally illuminate their signs.

When considering the type, size, and illumination of signs available currently in the Institutional District, it is easy to see why many are concerned and want to see a comprehensive approach to sign standards in the District. Knoxville-Knox County Planning staff selected the current location of Institutional Districts, many of which were formerly Office or even Residential Districts. As described above, a future rezoning of ten contiguous half-acre lots could bring Commercial and Industrial signs outside of those pre-determined sites. Therefore, the time to provide comprehensive sign standards is before any new signs go up and before a rezoning is initiated, because once a sign is constructed it will be with us for a very long time.

Council’s Legislative Process:

In 2015, Council used its legislative process to create the sign ordinance and five years later this Council has through previous comments in the July 9th workshop, support for both moratoriums, and the September 2019 resolution expressed a commitment to take similar action today. Only a freestanding sign standard for the Institutional District, just like the other Special Purpose and Overlay Districts in Article 8 of the current zoning ordinance, can resolve size, type, and illumination of signs in the District. This amendment proposal will be the 4th attempt by Council to address this issue. After all the interest and action taken in this debate, I am glad that Council will now be able to consider an option for comprehensive sign standards in the Institutional District.

Lessons from the Past for a Modern Pandemic

Growing up, my father would often entertain us with stories and insights from the book he was currently reading. This fostered my own love of reading at an early age. Given the current increase in Coronavirus cases we’ve seen locally, I recently revisited one of my father’s recommendations from years ago, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry.

The Great Influenza offers a thorough analysis of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and details the fascinating evolution from heroic medicine to modern science-based practices. The book provides a foundational understanding of how viruses’ function and change or mutate through antigen shift or antigen drift. These mutations can make a deadly virus less so, or a mild virus more lethal. Despite being published over 15 years ago, a type of virus, coronavirus, is mentioned in the book. As I write this, I can hear my father’s voice reviewing parts of the book that I only recently completed. Clearly, I should have taken his advice and read this book years ago when he first recommended it.

Given the continued spread of Coronavirus and the increased number of active cases, I wanted to better understand the 1918 pandemic. I also want to share portions of that true story that I found helpful in gaining a better understanding of how we faced a pandemic over a century ago. The account of that outbreak is as compelling as it is a gruesome tale — a dark time in our Nation’s history.

The 1918 flu, similar to other pandemics that have occurred in 1889, 1957, 1968, and 2009, came in waves. The first wave in the Spring of 1918 was less deadly than the Fall of 1918. The likely origin of the 1918 flu was Haskell County Kansas. Throughout 1918, the health care system was first strained and then pushed to its breaking point or outright collapse as cases soared. It’s interesting to note that social distancing practices were employed back then to help temper the outbreak. Schools were closed, large gatherings were canceled. Entire towns shut down completely. Those who chose to social distance fared better, while cities like Philadelphia that held a huge parade to promote the purchase of war bonds suffered unimaginably. Eventually, the virus spread all over the world even to very remote places. In the buildup to World War I, the press was suppressed and news of illness was dismissed or downplayed. Life and movement sped up to prepare for the war effort at a time when social distancing could have helped slow the impact of the virus. Matters were not helped as thousands of American soldiers were crowded onto transport ships during World War I, becoming ill or dying from the virus during or soon after their Atlantic voyage.

If you’d like to learn more, but don’t have time to read the book, I highly suggest watching American Experience on PBS. Season 10, Episode 5: Influenza 1918.

As we continue to navigate these uncertain times, I find hope and comfort in studying the past. The unknown is our greatest fear, perhaps because our imagination is left to fill in the voids of our knowledge. Although life today is quite different than it was a century ago, reflecting on history can provide us tools to identify patterns, gain perspective, and better solve the challenges of today.

I also find solace in the many modern advantages that we have in 2020 to fight a pandemic:

  1. We have a much better understanding of viruses today.
  2. We’ve seen advancements in anti-viral drugs like Oseltamivir, Zanamivir, and Remdesivir. This class of drugs offers the promise of inhibiting the development of a virus.
  3. We don’t have the massive global assembly and movement of troops seen during World War I which significantly worsened the spread of the 1918 flu. Social distancing was not as feasible during wartime and the talent and focus of our medical system was on the war effort and not the pandemic.
  4. We survived. As terrible as the 1918 flu pandemic was, we survived and went on to see another century of progress as a civilization.

Just like in 1918, we can’t isolate ourselves away from the virus, only a few islands and remote communities successfully accomplished this a century ago and replicating that level of extreme quarantine would be virtually impossible today. We must layer several interventions to promote social distancing to reduce the threat of a significant local outbreak to avoid straining our health care system. If we all re-commit ourselves to slowing the spread, each of us can play a role in slowing this pandemic and saving lives. When we leave home, let’s wear a mask. Let’s establish consistent routines to wash our hands and disinfect anything we’ve brought with us or anything we’ve touched when we leave home. Let’s resolve to stay home if we’re feeling sick and avoid large crowds.
We can all play a role in fighting COVID-19. Remember that we are writing the history of today, the story of our time and what we did. Let’s do our best to write a story about a community that came together, that cared about one another, that protected one another, that kept moving forward in the face of fear.

KAT Worker Appreciation Day — June 5, 2020

The phrase “essential worker” has taken on new meaning over the past several months. During this unprecedented time, we are grateful to our Healthcare Heroes and all essential workers who bravely faced COVID-19 daily to keep our community fed, healthy and safe. Every day, cashiers, grocery store stockers, utility workers, sanitation workers, bus drivers and so many others put their health on the line to keep our city moving forward.

Photo Credit: Mattheis/News Sentinel

A few weeks ago, my long-time friend Cameron Brooks reached out with an idea to recognize some of these essential workers. For many of our neighbors, Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) is the only way to get to work, the doctor, or to get essential groceries and medicine. In appreciation of their efforts, Cameron suggested that we host a KAT Worker Appreciation Day on June 5th and provide free lunch to all KAT workers. Cameron set up a GoFundMe page and set our initial goal at $1,000. Thanks to the generosity of our incredible city, that goal was met within hours, and we ultimately raised $2,035.00.

Photo Credit: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel

As we considered who could provide 200 lunches to our friends at KAT, we immediately reached out to our friend Yassin Terou, of Yassin’s Falafel House. Last Friday, Yassin and his crew cheerfully whipped up 200 gyro lunches at their Walnut Avenue location and KAT driver Ventrice Hodge helped us package and deliver the delicious food. Cameron and I are so grateful to Yassin for his kindness and thrilled that we could help support his restaurant during these tough economic times.

The greatest thing about Knoxville is our people and their genuine VOLunteer spirit. After months of being cooped up in the house and participating in Zoom-hosted City Council meetings, it felt great to spend some time downtown. Thank you, Cameron, for allowing me to be involved and a special thank you to Yassin and all our KAT workers for all you do for our community!


Finding a Council Member for District One and Moving Forward Together

Your Knoxville City Council was given a difficult task last week. Following Stephanie Welch’s resignation to serve Mayor Kincannon’s administration, council was tasked with selecting her replacement to serve out the remainder of her term, which runs through 2021.

I must take a moment and share how much I will miss Stephanie. She was accessible to her constituents, worked hard for her district and was always a deliberate and thoughtful member of council. One of the best parts of serving on council is meeting and connecting with great people like Stephanie. I am not sure if our paths would have crossed otherwise, but I am glad we had the opportunity to serve together.

Those who step up to serve on council acknowledge that there will be tough calls at nearly every meeting and last Thursday was no exception. Given the weight of the responsibility of selecting a new District 1 council member, I wanted to share my decision-making process.

First, I’d like to mention: As a former Knox County Election Commissioner, I would have preferred to let the people of District 1 select their representative through a traditional election, rather than a council appointment. I believe in our democratic process and continue to encourage community-wide participation in our elections. That being said, let’s clarify the process council had to work with.

The Process:
The Charter sets forth the rules required for replacing a member of council in Chapter 7.5, Article 2, Section 7.5-87(e), Rule 26: Filling Vacancies. Let’s explore the language: “in the first round of voting, applicants not receiving at least one (1) vote shall be eliminated.” The rule goes on to clarify, “in the second and subsequent rounds of voting, the applicant receiving the fewest number of votes shall be eliminated.” In my opinion, this is relatively straight forward and keep in mind council is required to fill a vacant office within thirty days according to Charter Part I, Article 7, Section 705: Vacancies.

Council attorney Rob Frost, who had reviewed the video of the same process in action nine years ago, was concerned about a scenario where more than one candidate would tie with the fewest number of votes. After a good debate, including council members Parker, Fugate, Singh, Rider, and Testerman, a suggestion was made that, in the unlikely event of a tie with the fewest number of votes, a tie would stand and wouldn’t be broken until after five rounds of the same parties being locked in that same tie. This scenario did not occur so only the plain language as directed by the Charter was required during our vote.

How I Reached My Decision:
For reference, I am only detailing my process, no one else’s. Following Stephanie’s announcement, I thought about the unique position a district representative has on Council and how best to identify the right qualities in a candidate. Early on, I felt the best way to identify and evaluate these qualities was to attend as many South Knoxville neighborhood meetings as I could. Of the fourteen neighborhoods listed in the First District with the Office of Neighborhoods, I attended seven meetings leading up to our February 20th meeting. These meetings included: Colonial Village, Island Home, Old Sevier Community, South Haven, South Woodlawn, Southside Waterfront, and the Vestal Community. I learned a lot from those meetings regarding the unique challenges and opportunities in the First District, making a point to stick around after the meeting concluded to allow neighbors to share their thoughts. In the neighborhoods I visited, only Tommy Smith and Janice Tocher attended as well. I can’t tell you who did or did not attend any other meetings where I wasn’t present.

After visiting with those neighborhoods, one thing became very clear: People want an accessible neighborhood advocate to represent them.

Repeatedly, I heard neighbors echoing this same sentiment. You must be accessible and to do that, you have to show-up at community events and engage with those who you wish to serve. One gentleman I sat next to at the Old Sevier Community Group leaned over to me and said, “I like the way you stand up for your neighborhoods.” Balancing the needs of neighborhoods and the city as a whole is our job as council members.

Most of the citizens I spoke to in South Knoxville expressed support for Tommy Smith. I also received numerous emails and letters expressing support for a candidate, but I received the most messages on behalf of Janice Tocher and Tommy Smith. I met with each candidate that asked for a meeting and had great visits with Anne Wallace, Janice Tocher, Rebecca Parr, David Hayes, Ben Ream, and Tommy Smith. I appreciate the opportunity to meet each candidate and get to know them better. Next, I carefully reviewed their applications and entered the special called meeting with an open mind, needing to hear from each candidate in order to make my decision.

Ultimately, I chose Tommy Smith for the reasons I detailed above and because I felt like he demonstrated before and during the special called meeting that he will be an accessible neighborhood advocate for the First District. I also really enjoyed hearing from all the candidates and several times thought how wonderful it is that the First District provided so many good candidates to choose from.

Moving Forward Together:
It’s not often that council is called on to replace one of its own, but I am proud of all our members for their hard work and diligence during this process. It is my absolute privilege to serve on the most diverse council ever, comprised of two thirds female members and one third people of color. What a wonderful moment for our city! Now that we are back to nine members of council, I look forward to getting back to work with this exceptional group of community leaders.

Beer Board Reviews Policy, Considers 2020 Goals to Curb Underage Service

Earlier this week, your Knoxville Beer Board met for the first time in 2020. This was also the first time that I served as chair. I truly appreciate Vice Mayor McKenzie nominating me for this position and for the approval of my colleagues on City Council to take up this role.

Mark Byrd
Mark Byrd, revenue technician with the business and tax division, is ready to assist those seeking a beer permit.

The responsibility of our Beer Board can be generally divided into two areas: customer service and enforcement. In the first area of focus, customer service, Beer Board and the staff in the business tax office assist the public with the application process and familiarize applicants with expectations associated with issuing permits. Last week, I conducted a walkthrough and mock application, as if I were seeking a beer permit. Mark Byrd of the Business Tax Division is on the customer service front lines and skillfully guided me through the process. Mark and Revenue Administrator, Donna Dyer, are committed to assisting applicants throughout the permit process.

The second area of focus is enforcement. The Beer Board works with KPD to reduce the number of establishments serving underage customers. I spoke with Karen Pershing, Executive Director of the Metro Drug Coalition, who showed me a 2018 Knox County Middle School Survey revealing that approximately one in five middle school students in our community have tried alcohol more than a few sips (see: 2018 Knox County Middle School Youth Behavior Study.) It has been and will remain a top priority of the Beer Board to reduce the number of establishments that serve underage customers by ensuring that permit holders have plans in place to prevent these sales in the first place.

“We all play a role in preventing underage drinking, whether we are parents, educators, neighbors, policy makers or business owners. By sharing a consistent message and doing our part to reduce access to alcohol, we can drive down rates of alcohol use by our youth and make our community healthier and safer for all of us,” – Karen Pershing, Executive Director, Metro Drug Coalition

When starting a new role, I believe in taking an inventory of where you are and then determine where you want to go. Prior to our meeting, there were 794 active beer permits in Knoxville. From the beginning of 2018 through the end of 2019, there were 194 approved applications. The number of applicants appearing before the Beer Board increased by almost 16% from 114 in 2018 to 135 in 2019. In the past two years KPD conducted 9 compliance checks visiting 185 establishments of which 34 sold to underage customers in 2018 and 26 in 2019. That’s a failure rate of 18% in 2018, which decreased to 14% in 2019.

Permit holders who fail their compliance check, have no fine for a first offense if they submit a remedial plan detailing how they will prevent underage service in the future. If they fail to submit a plan, the offender will go to a hearing and receive a $250 fine. A second offense will result in a hearing where suspension or revocation can occur as well as a $500 fine (see here for link to current penalties). In our discussion, Beer Board members expressed interest in learning the consequences for failing a compliance check in other local jurisdictions. My preliminary research into this found that in Knox County, failure of a compliance check yields $1,000 in a first offense.

To help stop underage service, both preceding Beer Boards had a focus on server compliance plans. This is a plan that lays out how a business will prevent underage beer sales as well as overserving customers. The requirement was added to beer permit applications in 2017. Then in 2018, the Beer Board passed guidelines I authored for server compliance plans to be added to the beer permit application (see guidelines). In 2018 only 5.2% of those applicants appearing before Beer Board didn’t have a server compliance plan in their application at the time they appeared at Beer Board. That number dropped to 4.4% in 2019. We are making progress as evidenced by the increase in plans being submitted as well as the 4% drop in establishments that sold to an underage informant in 2019 versus 2018. Preventing underage sales is certainly not a new goal. However, we as public servants should constantly seek to improve and work to address challenges.

Beer Board had a thoughtful discussion at the end of our meeting reviewing these statistics as well as our present procedure. From that discussion it is clear that the members would like to consider the following goals for 2020.

  • Ensuring that 100% of applicants produce a server compliance plan before their Beer Board appearance.
  • Ensuring that penalties are appropriate to facilitate further reductions in underage sales.
  • Reviewing the number of compliance checks to see if recommending an increase to KPD would be helpful to ensure better performance in compliance checks.

We want to be data driven and proactive as a Board, so I look forward to upcoming reports allowing future actions to consider as well as hearing further from my colleagues on these important issues.

Support for Sutherland Avenue

Did you know? November 30th is Small Business Saturday! It’s the perfect opportunity to show support for small businesses in our community — businesses that play a critical role in bolstering Knoxville’s economy. Why is our support so critical? 67 cents of every dollar spent at a local business stays in our local community.

Doing our small part, fellow Council-member Gwen McKenzie and I have partnered on a series of lunch mobs to help local businesses along Sutherland Avenue during the closure of Hollywood Road. The closure will last for several months as improvements to Hollywood Road get underway and as the Flats at Pond Gap, an affordable workforce housing development, is built. During the consideration of this project by City Council, the neighborhood expressed legitimate concerns about traffic safety and potential flooding. In order to address those concerns, Hollywood Road will be raised to improve line of sight for drivers, 1,000 feet of new or replacement sidewalks will be installed, a crosswalk will be installed to improve walkability, and critical steps will be taken to address localized flooding in the area. The road improvements and addition of 102 units of affordable workforce housing will be beneficial in the long term, but we are working to minimize any potential impact on local businesses along Sutherland during construction.

Lunch Mob Pic
Former Mayors Victor Ashe and Dan Brown as well as Mayor Rogero and Mayor-elect Kincannon joined Council-member Gwen McKenzie and I for our first Sutherland Ave. lunch mob.

Gwen and I were pleased to host our first lunch mob last Thursday, November 21 at El Charro. The event was well attended and we appreciate the support of neighbors from Sutherland Heights, Westwood, Pond Gap, Forest Heights, and Sequoyah Hills who joined us. The entire community is invited to our next lunch mob on Monday, December 16th from Noon-1pm at Dead End BBQ located at 3621 Sutherland Ave.

Please join us in supporting our local small businesses and merchants along the Sutherland Avenue corridor.