Jay looks at county ‘big picture’

Larsen Jay is making his first run at elected office this year, seeking to become the At-Large Seat 10 representative on Knox County Commission.

“I want to start helping to talk about the big picture vision for Knox County,” said Jay, a former Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who is founder/CEO of Random Acts of Flowers, “a non-profit organization now in five cities in five states around the country.”

“I really got interested in running just seeing several cycles of friends or other people who had (served),” he added. “Hugh Nystrom (4th District commissioner) is a good friend of mine, and I saw him go through the process and I just got more interested in ‘what is County Commission?’

“And obviously, as I’ve done more public service with Random Acts of Flowers and other things, I’ve just learned more about it. What I’ve really learned was, we have a really unique and dynamic growing county, and we have a lot of big opportunities and big challenges ahead of us.

Overall, “It seemed like an opportunity where I could be helpful and bring some leadership skills to the table and do my part to be a public servant,” he said. “… I started to learn how somebody could make a difference in the planning and the future of our community.”

Before throwing his hat into the ring in January, Jay said, “What I’ve done for the last year, is I’ve really educated myself on ‘what is the role of Knox County Commission?’ And ‘what is county government?’ … I’ve met with the school system [officials], I’ve been to the Property Assessor’s office. … I’ve been to the Public Building Authority; I’ve been out on ride-alongs with the Sheriff’s [Office deputies] and toured the jail, I’ve been down to the Register of Deeds office.”

In all, “I’ve been to 26 of 28 [government] departments in Knox County,” Jay said, “… where I’d spend several hours or half a day learning the different jobs, the challenges, opportunities, what works, what doesn’t.

“… And I’ve been to close to a dozen County Commission meetings and workshops. … Met with pretty much all the County Commissioners,” Jay added.

“… I’ve learned a lot. … And if I’m not [elected], I’m a much more informed citizen. … I know a hundred times more than I ever did (previously).”

Jay also said he saw “a void in leadership” when Commissioner Bob Thomas, current At-Large Seat 10 rep, decided to step down to run for Knox County Mayor.

However, “I’m not interested in a career in politics,” he said. “I just saw a way that I could help.”

As for solving some of Knox County’s issues with budgets, including debt control, and other challenges, Jay said, “I would say there’s so much that’s going to depend on who our next [county] Mayor and what their vision for the county is, and what their priorities are.

“Everything starts with the mayor and the budget that the mayor presents,” he added, “And the finances in which the mayor says, ‘here’s what I hope to allocate for these priorities.’”

Aside from who is elected county mayor, “I would say a couple of really big things Knox County is facing is, from a financial position, we’re in a ‘pay-as-you-go’ format right now,” Jay said. “With the revenue that’s brought in, we can pay for the current services for the county government.

“But what we don’t have is, we don’t have the capacity for major projects, for major infrastructure because of our current debt load,” he added.

“The debt has risen because we’ve built schools, we’ve done some major structural things.”

However, “Government is run right now in a way that is affordable and efficient and effective, for the most part,” Jay said.

Specifically addressing the county’s debt of more than $660 million, Jay said, “Our debt is a bit high. But I would also point out we have an amazing credit rating with SNP and Moodies. … We have A, A-plus.

“So we’re paying our bills. The actual people who rate our debt don’t feel like we’re in trouble,” he added. “And we pay for that in debt service every year as part of our operating cost.

“It’s no so out of control that it is doom and gloom.”

Jay said ways to reduce debt include “growing our community, grow our commercial base, grow our homes, grow our population, and more revenue comes in.”

However, “I don’t think we can significantly reduce it by hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars without some sort of different plan or formula,” he said.

Jay said he can’t propose government cuts “until I know who our new mayor is and what our new budget is.

“I don’t want to see a property tax increase, it’s not something I’m interested in — but I also don’t rule anything out because I don’t know what our community is going to look like a year from now, two years from now, five years from now.”

As for his experience, “I know how to manage businesses and I know how to manage budgets,” Jay said. “I run a non-profit that’s affordable and effective — with no debt.”

He referenced population growth as a “big challenge we’re going to face … in the next 10 to 20 years,” adding it’s one reason “why I’m interested in this At-Large seat.

“(Knox County Municipal Planning Commission) estimates our population is going to grow by 200,000, 250,000 in the next 10 to 20 years,” he said. “… Nobody’s talking about that. How are we getting ready? What are our roads and infrastructure going to look like? What’s our school situation going to look like? What’s our land use going to look like? … There’s only so much land, and only so much flat land.

“And we have to balance, with that growing population, what types of housing; what kind of development? What kind of land do we have available for industrial or commercial use, which ties directly to our workforce. I think that’s going to be a big issue.”

Pointing out the especially big growth of Hardin Valley in recent years, “Eventually we’re going to have to start pushing more east and south,” Jay said. “And there’s even more limited land there.

“… What’s our law enforcement going to look like with a growing population?” he added.

Jay said one key amount of feedback he’s received meeting with Knox County citizens rural, urban and suburban: “a desire to see more attention and more addressed with mental health, emotional health and addiction recovery services.”