Our interest in liberty and the free market takes us to Larry Grohn, who has been sitting in on Chattanooga city council meetings for three years and come to believe he can offer a strong voice in city government.
The Texas native is seeking the seat for the Brainerd part of town (District 4), held by Jack Benson. Mr. Grohn is a former science and social studies teacher, and before that worked at manager at Sears. He has two grown children from a previous marriage. His wife, Carol, is retired from the military. Mr. Grohn, a member at Woodland Park Baptist Church, is on the leadership team of the Chattanooga Tea Party, a group that sees danger to local self-determination in the agenda of the United Nations. Mr. Grohn was active in the bid to unseat Mayor Ron Littlefield.
He says his campaign effort involves attempting to knock at the door of every registered voter in the district.
Mr. Grohn was gracious enough to grant me an interview Saturday. He starts by telling how he and Carol discovered Chattanooga.
Larry Grohn Carol and I came to Chattanooga for a wedding just a little over 10 years ago, and at that time she had been stationed — she was an art my nurse — and she was part of closing own Fitzsimons army hospital in Denver, and I was in the midst of my second career as a school teacher. I had worked for Sears and Roebuck in the ’70s and ’80s and kind of saw the handwriting on the wall for Sears. And a friend of mine and I, we decided to take a silver handshake — it wasn’t quite golden — and we both went into education.
I followed Carol around. She was in Texas. We moved from Kansas to Oklahoma, to Colorado, and it was in that time there, as they were finishing closing up Fitzsimons and she was retiring from the military, that we came here for a visit. We were here for four days. We just casually added Chattanooga to the bottom of our wish list for where we wanted to settle down. And considering all the places we had been, and all the places we had on our list, we ended up eliminating every place on our list except Chattanooga. ****
But then after moving here and being a teacher of economics, government and history, I would research every area that we lived in. And I started getting very concerned about some of the decisions being made at the local government level. The county commission and the city council were dominated by very liberal thinkers, and pushers in bigger government. And it was in 2009 that the city adopted the Chattanooga climate action plan, and that is a direct lead-in to the U.N. Agenda 21, primarily using zoning restrictions to limit property rights and freedom of choice.
Then, when you throw in the debacle the city has in the handling of their stormwater and wastewater situation, and then the property tax increases, I got highly involved in the recall of the mayor. In [my] researching these issues, it finally came to the point when I couldn’t stand it any more — a high level of frustration going to the city council all the time, and researching budgets, researching issues. I decided I either have to stop and back off, or I have to try to offer a difference, a change in ideology, especially for the fourth district which is primarily in Hamilton Place and East Brainerd. Because so much growth has been taking place in this area, it’s a very large part of the economic engine — an integral part — of the economic engine of the area.
So as much as I can admire Jack Benson for his service, I see him and others on the city council as a rubber stamp for whatever the mayor is wanting to do in the past eight years. So I pretty much disagree with Mr. Benson on just about everything. There hasn’t been much spending or growth in government that he hasn’t supported. And I’m very much against that.
I have been before city council arguing against the accepting of federal grant money. And I get the excuse, “Well, if we don’t spend it, somebody else will get it.” That type of language just infuriates me. The money has to come from somewhere.
I just believe if our city government can’t offer the citizens and taxpayers basic services — which you can go to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Security — that’s police and firefighters, safety, then maintenance of our basic infrastructure, our roads, our public works. And then quality of life issues — parks, recreation, certain social services.
Could Chattanooga become as lean as Knoxville?
But beyond that, if you can’t supply that, you shouldn’t be looking at doing anything else. It also concerns me that, even though it is difficult to compare cities such as Knoxville and Chattanooga, I don’t understand why Knoxville has less than 1,400 employees and Chattanooga as 2,400 employees. And at the same time, the city of Knoxville has 60 more police officers. They have 520 police officers and Chattanooga has 460. Chattanooga has about 140 square miles of space. Knoxville has 98 square miles. **** I’m concerned we’ve annexed areas but still have the same number of officers before we annexed the area. So my focus would be, let’s make sure the city is operating as efficiently as possibly. Let’s use technology to streamline services, and let’s reduce the size of government so we can address basic services.
Disproportionate outlays around and about
In terms of road infrastructure and road maintenance, there’ve been two studies done. They studied three factors. When the public works department looked at these, they said we need F$5 million a year to be able to do what the report suggests we do. In 2012, the city allocated $1.7 million for road maintenance for all the streets in Chattanooga. At the same time they spent an additional F$1.6 million on one roundabout at Shallowford and Jenkins Road. So, I have a difficult time making sense of the allocation of resources when you spend F$1.6 million on one roundabout, and you only allocated F$1.7 [million] for maintenance on all the other roads in the entire city does not make sense to me.
Shooting gallery; let free market run it
So these are the issues I’m concerned about. When you talk about free market, the city and county now want to build a F$3 to F$4 million indoor firing range facility to train their officers. So Chief Dodd and some others went down to Roswell, Ga., and looked at Sharpshooters USA. Sharpshooters USA is a private business that contracts with law enforcement agencies in that area for them to come in and do training. The owners have a gun store. They offer private memberships. So, it’s a business. I don’t see any reason why the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County should build and indoor range and manage an indoor range and have to pay the operating expenses when there is a company in town that is willing to build a facility if the city and county will sign a long-term contract.
So, for me, that’s a win-win situation. Not only do we develop another business. We offer a service to citizens who want to partake of that business. That creates jobs. That creates more tax dollars from the property. And the city isn’t strapped with salaries and all the benefits they would have to pay employees to manage the operation. It seems would like a win-win for both the businessman who wants to build that, and the city who can utilize when they need to.
David You are seeking office so that you might bring a new “ideology,” a new idea, a new view of the world, than the incumbents. Can you talk a little about what your free market concept is, and where you start, and elucidating why the free market is there, what are the benefits of the free market, and how the free market concept is a jumping off point for someone involved in politics who has to direct the use of force, obstensibly for the public benefit? How your ideas the ground of what you would propose as program?
Larry Grohn For me, free market choices deal with business opportunities. It’s not local, state or federal government’s business to step into areas that should be private, free market businesses and try to create that. All that does is to create a burden on the taxpayers. Because now the government is in charge of whatever enterprise.
It’s like the bicycle program in downtown Chattanooga. If that was something that was going to be private and marketable, someone would have already done it in the private sector, not the public sector.
‘Very careful about the unintended consequences’
David So, now, it’s a government program and it has to run at a loss, you’re saying; it can’t run efficiently, it can’t run rationally because it has the subsidy and it’s filling an area for which there is no public demand, no market demand.
Larry Grohn Well, this is another one of those issues where, “Oh, this is grant money that has set this up.” So, are we saying we continue to have to suck off the federal government or whatever grant monies are available to continue to operate this? Because sooner or later you’re going to have to maintain those bikes. You’re going to have to clean those bikes, clean the area; you have to maintain the system that operates these bikes. It’s just a slippery slope that I don’t believe the government should get into.
And what I’m hearing from the current leadership is, OK, It’s just a grant. My criticism always was, “What is going to happen in the future? How are we going to maintain this in the future?” These grant monies that the city accepts, you have to be very careful about the unintended consequences and the slippery slope of creating something that has to continue to be later down the road, is going to have to be paid for by taxpayer dollars. [Mr. Grohn says bike programs are modeled after those in Europe, but traffic designs in Chattanooga invite hazards for bikers and liability problems.] So those are some of the unintended consequences.
Walking tracks — Role for government, or private initiative?
It’s like in my district, in the fourth district. there are some individuals involved in the Friendso East Brainerd, friends who are trying to use the power line rights of way and donations of land to create walking paths, because the entire area here is pedestrian and bicycle unfriendly. So we could create that in pre-existing open space that the city or TVA has right of way, then that’s great. But we are planning to do this without grants, by donations and by getting local businesses involved. Now this might take us 5 or 10 years. I’m involved in that. I am just picking up where a great individual, his name is Roger Meyer, started this a few years ago and he’s been working on it or a very long time. And it might take us that long; but that’s fine.
We’re hopefully going to do this without spending any taxpayer dollars. And that’s where I think we need to focus on. There are certain things all government, especially local government, shouldn’t be involved in. And that’s what I want to focus on.
David Nooganomics readers want to know specifics, but they also want to know the general concept: Why free markets are important, and why does it work?
Larry Grohn *** I’m not concerned about being re-elected. I’m concerned about going in and serving four years and trying to get a shift in ideology. The point is that private property and private enterprise has always been the foundation of the United States. It has been what has made the United States the greatest nation in the world. When you put restrictions on that, and when you interject government in what should be private enterprise in a free market system, you cripple that system.
It’s like the great Depression and all of the New Deal agencies were put in place. The reason we stayed in Great Depression is that it took out of the hands of private investors and private entrepreneurs — it undermined them doing the same job and creating viable jobs that weren’t dependent on government.
And that’s what we need to stop.
Government needs to get out of the way and they need to just foster and promote private enterprise.
Streamlined services — not same as metro government
Let me give you a prime example. In the city of Chattanooga, if you are going to open a business, you have to apply to both the county and the city for a business license. And yet at the same time the leaders — the government elected leaders will say, “We are for small business.” Well, those are annual reports that have to be turned in to both the county and the city. Now, I know the county wants their fee — to me a fee is still a tax — And the city wants theirs.
But if we truly want to be small business friendly, we would take small organizations that are supposedly offering customer service, and we would merge those [offices]. There is a lot of resistance in Chattanooga to regional government and merging city and county. The only way we could make any of that merger work would be to take a look at the small services the government offices and, can we combine them? Can we reduce those fees, reduce the paperwork, and *** can we reduce the number of employees using modern technology to innovate and being efficient?
David Are you proposing metro government? Is that something you are in favor [of]?
Larry Grohn Well, there is a huge difference between metro government and merging some services. I’m contending we can save taxpayer dollars, improve services and we can lower the amount of government we have in terms of the number of employees, and these are all plus factors. And at the same time, it would be a more small-business approach. Another factor thrown in here, another issue, is the adoption of the international fire code that has impacted a few dozen small business in Chattanooga. These small businesses are housed in older buildings that do not have sprinkler systems. And the cost of these sprinkler systems will put these small businesses out of business. Now the city imposed this fire code and didn’t grandfather these buildings because they are concerned about lawsuits.
Ruinous sprinkler rule — any other way?
David What’s the point you’re making?
Larry Grohn The point I’m making is that there should have been some stipulation in the adoption of that fire code in conjunction with the fire department and the city council to look at each one of these buildings on an individual basis. For example, the Comedy Catch, $100,000 to put in a fire suppression system in the Comedy Catch that is probably going to put it out of business on Brainerd Road.
So I have a problem with that. And when you have a business that wants to go into the old Saddlery Building (over on Broad as you’re going out to St. Elmo), this gentleman will not go into that building because the new regulations require him to put in an elevator that is large enough to accommodate the new EMS gurneys. So the cost of that is prohibitive. In the interior of the building there is no place to put that. He’s not going to go in there. **** It’s regulation like this that concern me.
Spreading a little United Nations around
In terms of free market and private enterprise, what I’m concerned about is the coding and the restrictions that we blithely put in the Chattanooga Climate Action Plan. If you read that 125-page action plan, it has 47 bullet items that the city wants to address. And about half of these items deal with energy efficiency — getting LEED certification — and I think we all want our government to be as energy efficiency as possible, just to save money.
But the other half deal very much with — there’s a lot of talk about offer incentives, offer incentives, offer incentives. To me, that seems to be a buzzword for, “Well, that’s not economically viable, so we are going to give tax breaks or give incentives for someone to come in and do something that normally would not be done.”
A tizzy over tiffs
For example, the [Carmike] Majestic theater downtown. It’s a RiverCity project. RiverCity Co. has a specific mission in the downtown area. This mission is for development downtown in terms of businesses and housing. But I have serious doubts about why we should have given the Majestic theater a 15-year pilot [tax break]. For 15 years, they have to pay only school taxes. They don’t have to pay property taxes. Now, sooner or later, if the city leaders continue to give these pilots, sooner or later the costs of services are going to catch up with us. It’s the same thing with Black Creek Mountain development. We are giving a tiff [tax break] to build a road that is going to be a dead-end road up a mountain for a development.
Tiffs are very specific. They are tax increment financing originally set up in California to do economic development in blighted areas. Now the rest of the country sometimes tends to follow innovative ideas that come out of California. But California has now banned tiffs. They no longer now allow tiffs. But the rest of the country, many parts of the country, are still going down this trail of following tiffs.
It’s interesting that the city council approved this tiff for F$9 million and immediately thereafter put a moratorium on any additional tiffs until they developed some criteria for allowing tiffs.
So, it’s when we make steps and policy decisions like this. we say we’re going to do this but, you know, we’re not quite sure, so we’re not going to do any more. Our finance administrator, Daisy Madison, has told the city council that “You cannot continue to just hand out these pilots. Sooner or later you’re going to run out of money.” So that comment is not coming from me. It is coming from an individual I do respect for the work that she does and the work that her department does.
2 candidates, 2 Christians
David People who are free market, libertarian and Christian residents frequently are not interested in local politics because local politics don’t seem to connect with their main idea — and that is freedom, liberty, the constitution. You’re suggesting this is not very realistic, but that these important ideas about liberty and the use of property do touch local government. Can you give some general comments about why that is, and why Christians and people who are concerned about these issues should look at local races to find the right kind of candidate who holds their view? Your having a tea party outlook — how does that affect the city council member job?
Larry Grohn I’ve heard it said your budget decisions are base on the policy you establish. And the policy that is established tends to develop out of what an individual person’s values are. And it’s difficult here in the buckle of the Bible belt.
Because I am sure my opponent, Mr. Benson — we both attend the Baptist church, just different ones. So how do my views differ from his views? What I see is that I come from a more conservative approach. I feel that any taxes impose restrictions on an individual’s personal rights and freedoms because it’s taking money out of my pocket.
Not a libertarian; public losing interest in politis
I don’t go all the way to the libertarian side. I really don’t mind paying taxes. What really infuriates me is when I can’t depend on the government to look at those tax dollars as -— to treat it like its their money, and not treat it like it’s the [people’s] money. Because it isn’t the government’s money. Now, we mentioned the public choice theory before is that people don’t get involved in politics because they think their one vote doesn’t matter, because ultimately they can’t influence individually a particular elected official. I can see that on one hand. By looking at our government both locally and at nationally, I can completely understand why folks think that. You would think voters would be more apt to be involved at the local level than they would at the national level.
I am looking at just over 11,000 voters in my district. **** Yet, in the last election, I think the entire city had a voter turnout of 18 percent. Four years ago it was 26 percent, eight years ago it was 32 percent. A lot of that deals with the timing of city elections. Still, what I am seeing is that, especially in hard economic times, people are more concerned with their own personal impact of this upon their lives, and just trying to get by. But I have to almost have to reject the idea in a way because I know the impact. As I go door to door, and speak to [voters], and they’re giving me really solid feedback. [Mr. Grohn discusses trash pickup scheduling and suggests a way to improve efficiency. He opens the topic of “small expenditures.”]
Petty cash not so petty in local government
Another frustration is when I hear elected leaders say, “It’s only F$25,000,” or “It’s only F$50,000 or F$75,000,” and in terms of F$310 million annual budget, it’s very small. But when an elected official loses sight of F$25,000 and the average salary in Hamilton County, and the average salary in Hamilton County is only F$36,000 a year, you’re talking about someone’s annual salary. And having grown up in a lower-middle class existence as a child, I never wanted for anything but I also knew what part of town I lived in, and what our limitations were as a family growing up. So I am very sensitive to — to me it’s very negative when I hear an elected official in the city of Chattanooga say, “Well, it’s only F$25,000.”
David Can you say something about the conflict between national economy and local economy?
Larry Grohn I really think local economy is more important than national, primarily because it is very difficult for individuals in the local context to impact the national economy. It think it’s very important for states and local municipalities to focus on job creation in their particular area. It’s like many of the individuals I’m concerned with now in conservative growps. We’ve kind of turned away — not that we ignore national politics. We’ve all gotten involved in that. But we’re much more focused on state and local issues, because that’s where we think we can have the greatest impact. ***
Corporate welfare ‘argument all over the place’
David Larry, can you tell me about your views on subsidies, breaks and favors for giant corporations, multinationals or national corporations that are lured into Hamilton County or Chattanooga — are these things good for people? Could you please explain your views on that?
Larry Grohn I am going to visit the economic development heads for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and RiverCity Co. They both have a set of criteria for the pilots they would like the city to offer new businesses. What’s interesting is that the city council is almost totally unaware of what these parameters are.
You have to balance what we’re offering a company to come in here. *** there has to be some criteria of how much the investment is, how many jobs are going to be created, and what is going to be the benefit of those jobs, and then what type of jobs are they? The national hourly wage on jobs is now around F$14 an hour. If they’re not offering jobs at the national average or above, do we really want to give concessions, pilots and subsides to a company *** ? Should we have given Volkswagen almost F$600 million to move in here? That’s an argument you could go all over the place with. [VW maybe adding a shift at the local plant that may build an SUV, he says.]
We still have areas in downtown Chattanooga [that need reviving]. I don’t like the idea that people come in I-24 and what is the first thing they see? The first thing they see is that old steel factory that still has yet to be developed. Why are we not developing something there?