NEW: Mayor proud of budget

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With only a single dissenting vote, Knoxville City Council passed Mayor Indya Kincannon’s $384.4 million dollar budget at their Tuesday meeting.

The budget includes millions of dollars in spending for affordable housing, violence interruption and aid for the homeless. Although the 2021-22 budget is $50 million larger than the previous one, Kincannon didn’t seek a tax increase.

Despite recent controversy and the demands of police critics, the Knoxville Police Department’s budget went up more than four percent to $60.6 million while the Knoxville Fire Department saw a similar increase to $43.9 million.

Kincannon also emphasized the importance of affordable housing as Knoxville continues to grow. The budget directs more than $8 million toward affordable housing and jumpstarts a 10-year, $50 million funding commitment for a new Knoxville Affordable Housing Fund that was also approved by Council. Major affordable housing investments include a $3.8 million contribution to the Austin Homes revitalization project and $1.5 million for permanent supportive housing.    

Kincannon also successfully sought $400,000 to continue and expand KPD’s Co-Response Team, an initiative which drew sharp criticism during Tuesday’s public comment period.

The co-response program teams up a patrol officer with a behavior health specialist from the McNabb Center in order to give first responders more options when dealing with the mentally ill. 

According to KPD figures, the team responded to 199 calls between Oct. 1, 2020 and May 4 of this year and only had to make arrests in three percent of them. Of those calls, 45 percent ended with a trip to a local emergency room for further evaluation and 11 percent wound up with the subject going to the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center or another program for treatment.

 Kincannon and KPD Chief Eve Thomas called the pilot program a success that deserves reinforcement and wanted to expand the program to four teams so there would be coverage seven days a week instead of the four days that current staffing levels allow. 

Not everyone agreed, however, that the program should be continued.

As has been the case at most local government meetings since the April 12 death of Anthony Thompson Jr., a 17-year-old East Knoxville boy who was shot to death during an armed confrontation with KPD officers, a crowd of protesters attended Tuesday’s council meeting. 

Many of the protesters have said they want to “defund the police” and oppose any additional spending that could be seen as benefiting or expanding KPD instead of funding social services. They have also opposed the City’s choice to use a co-responder model rather than an alternative responder model that would replace the team’s police officer with a medic.  

Knoxville Law Director Charles Swanson (left) and Mayor Indya Kincannon at Tuesday’s meeting of City Council. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

During the public forum, activist Tyler Givens criticized KPD’s performance in several areas. 

“Still the city tosses crumbs from the budget for virtue signals,” Givens said. “The top 3 reasons for homelessness listed on the official Knoxville Homelessness Dashboard are no affordable housing, mental and other health reasons, and addiction. This budget gives crumbs for affordable housing, it gives crumbs for a bad co-responder model for mental health. It gives crumbs for rent relief.”

Moira Connelly, a member of the planning team of HEART (Healing EastTN Alternative Response Team), said co-response models that don’t include police are used in other cities and have been designated as “best practices.”

“KPD’s own data shows that police weren’t needed on a majority of calls,” she said. “When the police are on the calls, that’s an unnecessary risk.”

At-Large Councilperson Amelia Parker made a motion to remove $400,000 from KPD’s budget and transfer it to the reserve fund. Next, officials should gather public input before deciding whether to move forward with the co-responder program or a replacement, she said. 

“We have not heard from anybody needing these service calls and yet we are making such wild assumptions,” she said. “I believe we need to hear from the public and have the public involved in reimagining public safety. That is the only way we can implement new strategies in this city.”

Parker’s motion died for lack of a second.

Seema Singh of the 3rd District said she liked the co-responder program but asked for a commitment from Kincannon that the City will aggressively explore options that don’t involve police officers. 

“I continue to ask for more and more tools for public safety,” she said. 

Kincannon replied that her administration will continue looking at community-based solutions. 

“We’ve made more progress in the last year than we’ve made in a generation,” she said. 

Erin Gill, chief policy officer and deputy to the mayor, explained that it takes time for local health providers to “built up their capacity” to provide trained mental health workers to accompany first responders.

Parker lamented the relationship between Council and the mayor and stressed that Council is strictly limited in its ability to make changes to a mayoral budget.

“We are all having really reasonable discussions ….  but I don’t think we’re going to change anything tonight,” Parker said. “It feels like we’ve created a culture where it’s disrespectful to the mayor to suggest an alteration to the budget.”

Left to right: Activists David Hayes, Constance Every and Rev. Calvin Skinner stand outside the Tuesday meeting of City Council. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

At-Large Councilperson Janet Testerman disagreed that the public had been excluded and said the budget is pushing the City in a good direction.

“We’re facing several crises …. we’re not going to solve them all in one night,” she said. “But we are in forward motion.”

Immediately following the vote to approve the budget (Parker cast the lone “no” vote) protesters began to yell “boo!” and chant slogans. Police Chief Eve Thomas disappeared from the stage and law enforcement officers started to move closer to the protesters. Unlike previous meetings where protesters disturbed the proceedings, however, no arrests occurred as protesters left immediately following the vote. 

Protesters then gathered outside the building. Activists Constance Every and Rev. Calvin Skinner passed on a message to the protesters from the family of Anthony Thompson Jr., whom they met with earlier Tuesday. “They are doing well, still going through their emotions and still seeking answers to what happened to their son on April 12, but they appreciate everything that we are doing,” Every said. “They would like for us to continue. Continue saying their son’s name.” 

Skinner said: “They wanted us to share that they have been inspired by the demonstrations. Anthony’s mother was with us on Friday — we didn’t know at the time. She says there is a lot of emotion to being out and about so she stayed in the car, but every time she comes out she is getting more strength from you all.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 19, 2021