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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Growing Controversy over Tennessee Executive Mansion Renovations

Questionable politics is nothing new in the state of Tennessee in regards to the Governors office. Presidential candidate Fred Thompson was a part of bringing down the corrupt Blanton administration in the late 70's and early 80's for selling pardons, liquor licenses, and other favors from the governor's office. Former Governor Don Sundquist remains shrouded in suspicion of corruption during his administration for "no-bid" contractual awards for state work.

And now we have current Governor Phil Bredesen, a New Jersey native who grew up in New York. The Governor's tax positions have had him in hot water with voters during his second ("lame duck") term as governor, and now a situation that has been developing since his election and taking office during his first term is becoming a sore spot for the sitting Governor of Tennessee.

Group assails spending on governor's mansion

Associated Press

A taxpayer group funded by a neighbor of the governor's mansion is criticizing the spending for construction and renovation to the executive residence in upscale Oak Hill.

Tennesseans for Accountability in Government, created by a donation from a Nashville auto dealer, called on the state Tuesday to provide cost details on renovations and the addition of an underground banquet hall at the mansion.

Susan Kaestner, vice president of the group, said the facility was an irresponsible waste of taxpayer money and the governor could use existing venues in Nashville for meetings. She said the group was created by a donation from Lee Beaman, a neighbor, but this wasn't a neighborhood group focused solely on the local impact to the community.

"The renovations have gone way past reasonable," Kaestner said, adding that the state hasn't been forthcoming with plans and costs.

When Gov. Phil Bredesen took office in 2003, he agreed not to move in the home so it could be renovated. First lady Andrea Conte has said the new underground facility is needed so the mansion — which was a private residence before it became an official home for Tennessee's governors in 1949 — will have sufficient and suitable space for meetings and entertainment.

It's the underground facility that has raised such an uproar. While residents of the Oak Hill community are concerned about traffic involved with the renovations and events held at the mansion with the addition of the "party bunker," as some pundits have labeled the underground facility, other taxpayers around the state are concerned with the price tag that comes along with it, and from where the funding for the project will come.

Meeting doesn't ease concerns over hall at governor's mansion
State architect gets earful from nearby residents

Staff Writer

Angry neighbors lashed out at state architect Mike Fitts Thursday night during a public hearing about a proposed underground meeting hall at the governor's mansion.

The Oak Hill Planning Commission called the meeting to solicit comments for Fitts to consider as the state moves forward with plans to blast though rock under the mansion lawn to create a 13,000 square-foot, sky-lighted banquet hall.

The city of Oak Hill has no authority to veto the project on Curtiswood Lane, but state officials have said they want to work with the city and residents.

Mansion neighbors said Thursday they remain concerned about the disruption the new "Conservation Hall" will have on their neighborhood.

"The renovation of the mansion was a good thing, it was needed, but I don't see a need for this," said Martha Thompson Elder, who attended Thursday's meeting on behalf of her elderly mother who lives near the mansion.

"Curtiswood Lane is a narrow street, and what will they do with all that additional traffic? It just doesn't need to be in a residential neighborhood.

"Why are we building something that is not needed and putting the burden on taxpayers."

In the past, large parties have been held in tents set up on the lawn. The underground hall will cut down on the tents.

Fitts told The Tennessean previously that tents still might be required for events too large for the hall. It is designed to accommodate 160 guests for a sit-down dinner or up to 500 guests and staff for other events.

Oakhill resident Tom Lawless worries about the effect the additional traffic will have on the community, and believes a formal traffic study should be conducted and a disaster plan considered.

Bill Hobbs of the Tennessee Republican Party has put together a comprehensive time-line for the events surrounding the proposed renovations and addition to the executive mansion:


NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Republican Party calls on Gov. Phil Bredesen and his wife to “put the brakes on the ballroom” in light of documents uncovered that indicate the Bredesens have been playing a shell game to mislead the public about the true cost of – and who is really paying for - the massive underground ballroom and entertainment complex they intend to build on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion.

The documents from the State Building Commission – which the TRP is making available online for taxpayers, media and legislators to view – show a timeline of rapidly ballooning costs as the original project of needed renovations of the state’s executive residence metastasized to include the ballroom facility.

The documents also show a shell game designed to mislead the public as to the source of funding for the ballroom, in total disregard for taxpayers who are just now learning that they’re paying millions for a project they knew nothing about as it was concocted in secret.

“Gov. and Mrs. Bredesen have claimed that the ballroom is being funded with private donations rather than tax dollars, but that’s not really true,” said Bill Hobbs, communications director for the TRP. “The Bredesens shifted nearly $3 million in private donations to the ballroom project that had been given for the renovation of the mansion itself – and then replaced that mansion renovation money with tax dollars.

(A 20-page PDF file of the documents can be found online at the Tennessee Republican Party website, .)

The State Building Commission documents show that the original project for renovation of the
governor’s mansion, described as a “maintenance” project and identified as SBC Project No. 460/028-01-2002, was first discussed by the SBC on October 10, 2002, three months before Gov. Bredesen took office. It had an estimated cost of $350,000.

The project – and its cost to taxpayers – soon grew like kudzu.

Kudzu, for those of you who are not familiar with the plant, kudzu is a plant native to Japan and Asia that was introduced to the United States in the 1800's, and when it was introduced to the Southeast it was determined that the climate made the plant grow uncontrollably. If you drive through the rural Southeast today, you're likely to see acres upon acres of the vine where it has overtaken the native vegetation.

The questions many are asking as the price tag for renovations balloons to nearly $20 million are why is the price tag continuing to sky rocket, who is going to be awarded the contract for doing the renovations, will there be "payback" involved in the price (a ballooned price tag to pay back political favors done for the Governor), and could the money not be better spent in building a new executive mansion rather than investing millions of dollars in a property that is not currently appraised at even $1 million? Many are also questioning why other State owned banquet facilities are not sufficient for hosting State sponsored events.

It should be noted that Governor Bredesen and Tennessee First Lady Andre Conte have not resided in the Oak Hills Governors Mansion during his two terms as Governor, but have maintained residence in their Forest Hills home.

Once and Always, an American Fighting Man