Local Government

Sales Tax, Sharing, and the High School Debt

The following was submitted to our local newspapers for publication.  It’s already up on the Observer’s website, and will likely appear in the Oak Ridger at some point.

In recent weeks, several guest columns by a City Council candidate or former Council member have alleged that the School Board is “holding the city hostage” or “failing to comply with the voters’ wishes” per the 2004 sales tax referendum.

Neither claim is true.

The fact of the matter is that the City developed the financial model for the new high school financing, and there was concern even before the referendum that if the County superseded the tax rate before five years elapsed, there would be insufficient income from sales tax to make the bond payments.  After five years, it was said to be a non-issue because the City could retire other debt.  Because of that risk, there was an unwritten agreement that the schools would contribute their share in the event that the County superseded the tax rate within five years.

The County did so after just two, on a petition-driven referendum spearheaded by the former Superintendent of Anderson County Schools.  Naturally, the Oak Ridge School Board understood that we had to help out for at least the next three years; payments were actually made for the next five years.

After five years, the payments were called into question, and the School Board was advised by our attorney that such payments were not legal without some written agreement approved by both the Board of Education and City Council.  Thus, payments were suspended.  The money was set aside until such time as an acceptable written agreement could be developed and passed by both.

In the process of developing such a resolution, it came to light that for the last five years, the schools have paid the City not just the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge (as explicitly called for in the referendum), but the schools’ share of the half-cent collected countywide.  Historically this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but over the last decade, retail in Oak Ridge has been stagnant or declining, while retail sales in other parts of the county have been on the rise.

The net result of that discrepancy is that the schools have actually overpaid the City by $1,373,696, simply by transferring the half cent of the schools’ share of countywide taxes instead of just those collected within our city.

A resolution has been drawn up specifically allocating the half-cent collected within the city limits of Oak Ridge – exactly what the 2004 referendum specified – to be voted on by the Board of Education on April 30, and by the City Council shortly thereafter.  This year’s funds, held in reserve, will be transmitted to the City immediately following ratification by both governmental bodies.

However, the problem remains that sales tax collections are not at the levels projected in the City’s 2004 financial plan.  The schools’ share of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge will not make the bond payments at this point in time. It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the recession that began in 2008, so it’s not a matter of a bad plan – just that it didn’t work out as expected.

Some would like for the schools to continue making payments at the previous level, but those are funds designated by the State for the operation of schools.  And, in case no one has noticed, the City’s annual contribution to the school budget has not been keeping pace with the cost of living (not to mention various other costs imposed by the State or Federal governments).

Although the vote has yet to be taken and I can speak for no one but myself, it is my sense that your Board of Education is willing and ready to work with the City Council to establish this tax sharing process, in a way that is legal and properly approved.

Neither side will get everything they want.  The School Board was told that this was a five-year commitment (ending in 2009) at most, and would prefer to pay nothing; City Council would like to have enough revenue to cover the bonds for several decades, regardless of the fact that sales within our city are not generating that amount.  Abiding by the explicit terms of the 2004 referendum is the best compromise.

That is what is contained in the resolution.  Clearly, the best path forward is approval of this resolution, and for City Council to redouble efforts to revitalize retail in Oak Ridge, benefiting both the City and the schools.

About the sales tax…

In this morning’s Oak Ridge Observer, guest columnist Trina Baughn referenced a post from this blog from April 14, 2006, regarding a gentleman’s agreement between the mayor of Oak Ridge (at that time, David Bradshaw) and the Anderson County mayor (at that time, Rex Lynch) about when or if the County planned to supersede the sales tax.

Unfortunately, she only told half the story.

That particular gentleman’s agreement was that the County would not do  so for at least five years.  Thus, when the financing was planned for the new Oak Ridge High School, the financial model assumed that Oak Ridge would continue to collect its share of the higher sales tax for five years, then that the County would supersede.   However, it was prudent to make a contingency plan in the event that the County didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, which indeed, they did not.

That contingency was, if the County superseded the sales tax rate before five years elapsed, that the school system would remit it’s portion of the new dollars from the County share of sales taxes to the City, to go toward bond repayment on the high school.  But only until the five year period was up, when the City had assumed they’d lose that money anyway.  This too, was a handshake deal — there was never a Board vote, nothing signed.

The schools held up their end of the arrangement, not only through the five years from the initial referendum in 2004, but several years beyond.  However, the time is well past due for the City to adhere to the original financial model, which assumed that the County would have superseded the tax rate anyway.

The schools’ attorney has advised that Oak Ridge Schools cease making these payments, and has been in communication with the City.  Because attorneys are involved, it would be unwise to go into the detail and links I would otherwise provide.   But our Superintenent, our Director of Business Services, and our former School Board Chairman, John Smith, all recall the facts exactly as stated here.

The school system held up our end of the agreement, and then some.  To continue making these large payments to the City would put the City at risk of running afoul of the State’s “maintenance of effort” law, and deprive our students of operational funds that the State has designated for the purpose of their education.

Charter Changes Emerge

On Nov. 2, along with selecting a Governor, a new Congressman, and our State Rep. and State Senator, Oak Ridgers will approve or reject three questions on changes to the City Charter.   The full list of proposed changes has been transmitted to City Council, which will meet on Aug. 23 to formally receive them and request that the Election Commissions of both Roane and Anderson Counties place them on the November ballot.

The most substantial change to most people would be moving the city elections to November of even years (to coincide with State and Federal general elections), rather than the June of odd years pattern we’ve followed for a long time.  The argument for the current method (June of odd years) is that it keeps the focus strictly on city issues; the argument for moving it to November of even years is that it would dramatically improve voter turnout — both because people tend to put forth more effort to vote in these larger elections, and because it’s not at a time when people are typically on vacation.

The second question changes the residency requirement to run for local office from six months to one year.  That’s not a huge change, but a sensible one, in my opinion.

The third question is a series of relatively minor changes, including

  • that Council (as a whole, not individual members) have the power to investigate “all city departments, offices, boards, commissions, committees, and agencies;”
  • adds the city’s website to the required publication for all official notices (in addition to a newspaper of general circulation);
  • increases the public notice requirement for appropriations amendments from five days to ten;
  • outlines purchasing authority;
  • adds an equal employment opportunity clause;
  • states that City Council shall establish an ethics policy consistent with State law.

Many, many other potential changes were discussed, argued, and considered, but in the end, these are what were approved by the full Commission.  On the November ballot, questions longer than 300 words (namely, Question 3) are likely to be summarized, so it’s worthwhile for all residents to read the whole 3-page document and start thinking about the decision.

The big one is the first question, as that represents the biggest change for Oak Ridge.  For a long time, I’ve been among those who feel that the standalone June elections give us a better opportunity to showcase city issues and candidates.  Over the past couple of years though, I’ve put a lot of thought into the prospect of combining with a November election, and I’m persuaded that the higher voter turnout is probably worth the additional competition for voters’ attention.

And, it saves a few dollars.

Study up, Oak Ridge.  This is your town, and your decision to make.

 

 

Just Imagine

Imagine for a moment being in a town where people have never been exposed to dogs: they know what a dog looks like, because they’ve seen pictures of them, or maybe seen them from a distance when they travel to other places… but they’ve never actually petted a dog, or walked one on a leash, or even spent five minutes observing one.

Now, some kook in the town wants to make it legal to keep pet dogs in the dog-free town.  “They will poop in the yards!” people exclaim.  “They will bark and make awful noise, and they will chase our cats!”  “Some people might even let their dogs in the house – just think of how unsanitary that would be, and how dangerous to the children!”   The townsfolk, having never been exposed to the companionship of dogs, are opposed.

Some bring up the scenario of dogfights, which attract gambling and other unsavory activities.

The dog-loving kook is fully supportive of a standard leash law, and that all dog owners should have to purchase a license from the city every year for every dog.  He supports requiring immunizations against dangerous diseases (like rabies), and the owner’s maintaining proof of such.  Many of the townsfolk mill about in opposition to the kook’s crazy dog plan, but little by little, respectable ordinary people step forward, cautiously expressing a willingness to consider the idea.

“My brother has a dog,” said one, “and he keeps burglars away from the house when my brother is gone.”  Another explains that she’d really like for her aged mother to have a dog for companionship.  Someone else mentions they’ve heard that dogs can actually be trained to assist the blind.  All of these people are in favor of reasonable limitations – no one suggests just letting the dogs run wild, stealing suppers from the table, biting children, and pooping on the town hall steps.

Can this hypothetical town accept change?  Is there any possibility that they can get past the fear of the unfamiliar, to find the benefits of a companion animal who helps guard their home, gives them a reason to go outdoors and walk, and offers unconditional love each day?

*  *  *

Now, turn your imagination 45 degrees, and see that the hypothetical town is our town.  The discussion is not about dogs, but about chickens.  The proposed regulations would be similar:  roosters would not be allowed (thus eliminating the noise component), the number of birds would be limited, confinement to the back or side yard would be required.  Registration and purchase of a license would also be required, just as it is for dogs.

The benefits are slightly different, but comparable.   Can this town ever get past its paranoia to try something new?

School Board Candidate Forum

The five candidates for three seats on the school board are all present, as the rules are explained to the audience.  Each candidate is permitted a three-minute opening statement, followed by questions from the local media, then quesitons from the audience.

Opening Remarks:

Dan DiGregorio – Dan arrived in Oak Ridge in 1969, knows the Oak Ridge Schools from many different viewpoints: teacher, coach, parent, grandparent.  Some of the recent events, the departure of our principal and coaches, have highlighted one of our challenges.  The average tenure of a superintendent in Tennessee Oak Ridge is five years; our current superintendent has been here for seven.  You should elect someone who can best represent you in the duty of selecting a superintendent.  Our three main foci are planning, policy, and promotion.  With regard to policy, we need to do a better job; some of our policies are ancient, and what was appliicable then may not be applicable now.  I’ll push harder to get our five-year plan current.

Bob Eby – has served twice before on the board, including service as Chairman in the 1990s.  His wife, Jean, has taught for many years at Linden Elementary.  Bob is the technology director for USEC, and is actively involved in many community boards.  He is an Eagle Scout, a professional engineer, and a certified instructor of problem solving.  

Brenda Fellner – Moved here ten years ago following an article in Money Magazine about the quality of the schools here, so that both of her sons could be educated here.  She has taught in several states and systems, including Oak Ridge.  She has a lot of experience with changing demographic populations.  Wants to make use of our senior population, as they could be a valuable resource as tutors in the schools.  We need to educate the public, much like the Council Night Out.  Not all of our parents have access to newspapers and the internet, so we need to find other ways to reach them.

Jenny Richter – Grew up in Oak Ridge, left for 12 years, then returned so that her children could attend school here as she did.  Jenny has served two terms on the Board, both with Ann McNees, and with John Smith, who has decided not to run this time.  Many things have happened in the last eight years, with the capstone being the completion of the high school renovation.  But, we can’t remain static — we must respond to change in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.  We face serious curriculum changes, and budget challenges  I understand the pressures, and look forward to addressng the solutions.

John Soldano — a dentist here, as long as a long-time resident.  His whole family are graduates of ORHS (youngest daughter graduating in June).  He presents the opportunity to vote for a candidate with a wealth of business experience.  

Media Questions:

Q) How would you suggest that ORS resolve their budget problems:

DiGregorio: How do we get more money?  From Tuesday’s forum, bring in more families, more recreational activities, more retail.  We need young families.  We must promote the school system, and build the tax base.

Eby: Obtaining the budget that the school desires can only occur through open dialogue with City Council.  All citizens must be cognizant of what the funds are used for.  School Board goes through the entire budget line by line, and it’s up to the citizens to participate.  The only source for additional revenue is from the City.

Fellner: We do need to work hand-in-hand with the city, to find out what parents think needs to be done differently.  One area that we could look at is the communications budget, which increased sharply this year.  There are some things that we do that could be tailored back, such as ordering supplies through the central office rather than at each school.  We must work with the City; it’s very difficult to get any extra funds from the County.

Richter: If you look at the budget, you’ll see that the great majority of funds is used for instruction, and that means people.  To cut the budget, you almost must cut people — people in the classroom who instruct children.  The one item that has the greatest impact on the education of a child is the quality teacher.  I am absolutely FOR maintaining the quality of our instructional personnel.

Soldano: I read the 142 pages of the school budget.  As a business person, I would review the budget to determine whether each expenditure is indeed legitimate.  Only after reviewing the entire budget to look for savings, should the school board go to Council for more money.

Q) What personal strengths do you bring to the table.

Eby: Engineering and business education; personal experience in technology and management; community involvement.  All of these things are great assets to the school system

Fellner: The diverse background in education that I have, serving alongside board members in other schools to improve services in other systems.  I’ve served on building and system leadership teams that evaluated schools for SACS accreditation, as well as for school improvement.  I’ve taught teachers in best practices.  I have the ability to communicate with all parents, all children, and adults in the system.

Richter: I could listen to a wall.  You have to be prepared to walk slowly through Kroger, because people in the community are comfortable in talking in informal settings.  I’ve learned a great deal through listening.  In my work at UT, higher ed is very much like K-12, just bumping up the age group.  I’m constantly lobbying for UT’s new hires to come to Oak Ridge.  

Soldano: I bring 4 things: business experience, experience as a former student, as a parent understanding the issues that confront students today, and I bring my listening skills.

DiGregorio: I’m just great.  I’ve got 38 years with Oak Ridge Schools, from many different viewpoints.  I believe that I’ve answered every single e-mail that has been sent to me.

Q) How can Oak Ridge attract quality teachers in the coming years?

Fellner – We need to look at the teacher training programs, and actively recruit the best and brightest.  We need to utilize the internship program at UT, where we get at 6-12 week preview of what these teachers would be like in the classroom.  Senior teachers could mentor the new teachers, meeting several times per year to mentor.

Richter – While it’s impossible to replace people, but we can send out ambassadors to recruit, pushing the qualities of Oak Ridge, making Oak Ridge an attractive place to teach.  Our teachers should know when they go into a classroom, that they will have the tools necessary to be successful.

Soldano – The easy answer is more money, but that’s not always the right way.   Hands down, most teaching graduates said that support of their principals, relevant inservice training, and recognition for their education and performance would be key.

DiGregorio – The Board and administration must behave professionally, to treat the teachers with the respect they deserve.  If we don’t have good teachers, we won’t have good students.  We do need to have a competitive salary and benefits package.  Teachers also need the opportunity to grow, to keep up with the current trends.

Eby – Oak Ridge has a history of outstanding teachers.  When they leave, how do we replace them?  There are several factors besides the facility; community support and involvement are also important.  Secondly, teachers need to be involved in the critical decision making.  Let teachers advise on curriculum matters; provide highly competitive pay and benefits.  Provide state of the art tools and quality teacher development.

Q) Appointed or elected school superintendent?

Richter – We’ve always had an appointed superintendent, so that he/she can be selected on the basis of qualifications and experience.  We have certain, expected minimums for every staff member.

Soldano – I also support selected, rather than elected, superintendents.  With an election, it’s possible to get a charismatic individual without the necessary skills.

DiGregorio – No (that’s my short answer).  Heck no (that’s my long answer).  I was an educator, and have no confidence  in an elected superintendent.

Eby – selected, not elected.  First and foremost, you want an educator.  You want the best person you can get from all over the country.  Elections preclude the widest range of choices.

Fellner – I’ve taught with both methods in place, and a selected superintendent is far, far better.  We get a lot of community involvement in the selection, and that’s one of the best reasons to have selected.

Q) What is the biggest problem right now?

Soldano – It seems like every year, we come down to this issue of funding, but that’s not to overlook issues like drugs.  Making sure that we have the proper funding and materials is the biggest issue now.

DiGregorio – I think our biggest problem is going to be how to educate all students to all the new standards that take effect this year.  Whether or not we agree, we must comply.  I don’t think we can continue to teach the way we have always taught; there have to be changes in the way children are taught.  Giving a child a zero for not doing their homework is counterproductive; somehow, we have to get the kid to do the work.  That decreases failing grades, increases the graduation rate.

Eby – There are many problems facing ORS today, and it is difficult to choose the biggest one.  Changing demographics is a big one.  Ensuring student safety, new graduation requirements, and lack of resources to address these problems.  Meeting all the needs of ALL children is the biggest challenge.

Fellner – to motivate and educate all the students in Oak Ridge.  We must educate ALL children, not just the college bound students.  We should work with labor unions, with the ROTC, and other resources that we need to tap into in order to accomplish this.

Richter- The greatest short-term challenge will be to implement and educate people about the new curriculum standards that are now in place.  Ultimately, we hope it will raise the standards for all children around the state.  We will have students being funneled into programs wth requirements that they have not faced before.  Students will now have to take courses that are not of their own choosing.  

Q)  Do you support providing transportation to all students?

DiGregorio – Yes.  Transport them all.  We don’t have a very walk-friendly community.

Eby – We ought to provide transportation opportunity to all schools.  Safety is an important factor.  However, we have to do it within the bounds of working with the City for crossing guards, sidewalks, and the funding to support transporting students.

Fellner – I agree that we need to transport all students.  The 20-mph school zones are a bit of an inconvenience, but we must ensure safe transportation for all students and help the city to provide safe avenues for students to do choose to walk.

Richter – it’s a harder question than it seems.  Children have different methods of getting to school, and we must recognize that not all students will ride the bus even if it is offered.  However, unformed officers make a tremendous difference in traffic safety, as not all children will ride the bus.

Soldano – if all students are required to attend school, then we should provide safe transportation to and from school.

Q) Are gifted students treated better, and is that right?

Eby – No.  The goal of public education is to offer challenging opportunities to all students.  We offer a very broad curriculum, have teachers who can teach at all levels.  We offer a range of classes that encourage all students to reach academically.

Fellner – Maybe not treated better, but there are disproportionate opportunities for gifted students, such as many more AP or honors classes than remedial classes at the high school.  If we do a better job in the elementary school, we won’t need as much remediation in the high school.

Richter – No, I don’t belive that we treat our gifted students better.  All courses are open to all students.  We encourage students to attempt material that they haven’t taken before.

Soldano – The gifted program reflects the population that we live amongst.  The national trend is 28-30% AP courses, so at 34%, we’re in line with the rest of the country.

DiGregorio – I don’t know, but it’s disturbing to me that it’s still being asked.  Whether it’s real or imagined, it’s a problem.  We must get rid of that perception.  We provide a good and complete education for all students, without prejudice.

Q) The administrators are interviewing candidates for the next ORHS principal.  What qualities do you want to see?

Fellner- a broad educational background, who knows about our diverse demographics.  I want someone who cares for all students, who supports all teachers, who can keep a clear line for all budget issues, and is on top of technology.

Richter – we need someone who lives, eats, and breathes high school issues.  I would be looking for someone who is highly educated, understands the 9-12 system, and who understands the demands that will be placed on the person leading this high school.  They must understand the value of the teaching force that we have here, and rely on them for key decisions.

Soldano – You need a good leader who supports the staff, understands the students and the mandates.

DiGregorio – I am sorry to see Chuck Carringer go.  I want a new principal who likes kids, is a good educator, and who is involved in the community.

Eby – I agree with the others’ statements.  When I think of an outstanding principal, it is someone who will listen closely to the staff and lead quietly.

Q) What policies may need to be changed?

Richter – there are several that we have been trying to plow through and change, but I can’t think of one that warrants particular focus at this moment.  A few years ago we changed our cell phone policy somewhat, and there are a few things like that that change as time goes on.

Soldano – has anyone tried to pick up a document from the administration lately?  There’s a five-day waiting period.  Zero tolerance probably needs to be re-evaluated.  I understand the reason for rules, but sometimes it can be cumbersome.

DiGregorio – staff residency and school trips are two that come to mind.  

Eby – the travel policy is one; if we have a policy, we need to ensure consistent execution.

Fellner – There’s no one policy that stands out, but consistency is of utmost importance.  That goes back to communication with the public.

Q) Teachers and staff have not received a salary increase.  How would you propose giving staff a raise next year?

Soldano – You can get so far behind that you’re trying to play catch-up.  In my business, we try to at least do a cost of living increase each year.  We have to ask the City for the money.

DiGregorio – I am not in favor of cutting staff positions to give a raise; with that, there is no other alternative except to ask the City for additional funds.

Eby- There’s only a finite amount of money.  If we do get the money, we should look at several different options.  For the last two years, the teachers with the most longevity got nothing.  Two possible methods would be to add a step at year 25, or to add a longevity bonus as the City did for City staff.

Fellner – If there’s no money, there’s no money.  We are falling behind, but if we’re no longer competitive, we’re no longer going to get the best and the brightest.

Richter – We may end up receiving some additional funding, so we may be able to provide a small raise.  Every percent raise costs us $350k – $380k, and this needs to be recurring funding because that cost will recur each year.  We are hoping to get additional information on the longevity bonus.

Audience Questions:

Q) Could cost be reduced by sharing resources with the City government, like offices or cars?

Soldano – Yes.  Duplication of costs; sharing will reduce the cost.  However, it’s likely to be an unequal division.

Q) How would you feel about members of the administration home-schooling their own children?

Fellner – If you’re making decisions about our students, those decisions should apply to your own children.

Q) The school sytem is trying to increase the graduation rate.  Are there any programs for people who have already dropped out, and should the school sytem be involved?

Eby – the alternative school is for students who cannot progress, or who have been expelled, or cannot learn in a traditional environment.  There are also GED programs, and the school sytem should absolutely be involved.  Some people elect to be in the alternative program.

Q) What would be the top 3 elements of a 5-year plan that you would support?

Richter – 1) re-examine the curriculum in light of the new standards, making sure our curriculum is properly aligned, both vertically and horizontally.  2) Prioritize and find a way to work with the City or County to return having police officers present in our middle school program (school resource officers).  It was a true safety element.  (ran out of time)

Q) the curriculum is under pressure, that is squeezing out some subjects.  How can we get PE, music, and art back into the classroom?

DiGregorio – those things still are in our classrooms, but the question is whether we can continue with the new standards, and the two additional credits required.   Now, our students are being asked to major and minor in something.

Q) What impact will the new graduation requirements have on the vocational program?

Richter – the new requirements will affect everything.  The new grad requirement is ONE PATH, and that is the college prep path.  A student must use all of their three electives to select a career path now.

Q) Over the last 10 years, overall enrollment has gone down, while spending and staffing has increased.  The school sytem has asked for additional money from the City.  Do you feel this is a sound fiscal practice?

DiGregorio – In the last two years, we have not requested anything from the city except what is in the financial model.  Enrollment going up and down is just a reality, and yes, costs do go up.

Q) Where do you rank the preschool facility in terms of need?

Eby – I would add the preschool/school administration building to Ms. Richter’s list of priorities; the preschool program has proven itself to be valuable, and we have to give them a better facility.

Q) What is your position on proposed merit pay for teachers?

Fellner – Teachers who go the extra mile deserve to be rewarded.  Going back to the GED programs, the requirements come from the State, not from the Board.  Some systems have night school classes, and one of those are GED classes.  We could do that, even with a modest tuition.

Q) According to the current rankings, OR now ranks 929 out of 1,300.  Why do you think our rankings have dropped, and how do we get back on top?

Soldano – Oak Ridge’s graduation rate is 4th among comparable schools nearby.  We have to decide if we want to stay basic, or if we want to go a cut above?

Q) How should the community be more actively engaged with the school board?

Fellner – We need to do a School Board night out, particularly in areas where the parents are less likely to come to board meetings.   We need to be available for communication, to go out into the community and work hand-in-hand with the public.  

Q) How would you characterize the current relationship between school board and city council, and what one action would you take to improve it?

DiGregorio – I think we’re working better now than we were four years ago.  The one item for improvement would be communication.  Going back to test scores, the ranking may rest entirely on the number of students taking the AP test.  If more take it, we rank higher; if fewer take it, we score lower.

Q) How much input should the school board have in regard to administrative decisions, and how do you hold them accountable for their decisions.  

Eby – there is a very clear delineation of responsibility, set out in the city charter, in state law, and in federal law.  The board must hold the superintendent accountable for adhering to policy.  With regard to the relationship with City Council, we used to have a 10-year plan.  We need a strategic plan that lays out where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.

Q) Should alternatives to evolution be taught in the Oak Ridge Schools?

Soldano – Yes.  Education is a process of looking at all viewpoints.

Q) What do you feel is the greatest need, facility-wise?  Why, and do you have a course of action.

Richter – My #3 on the priorities list is the preschool.  If you have not been there, I encourage you to go see it.  I went to school there as an elementary student, and it was old then.  The preschool has been a high priority for perhaps 20 years; we need to come up with a creative way to fund it, like we did with the high school.

Closing statements:

Soldano: ORS was ranked in the top 100 schools in the country when the current administration took office.  Now, we’re 929.  If you’re satisfied, re-elect the incumbents.  If you’re not, then I ask for your vote.

Richter – I look around this audience, and see so many who helped guide my life through supporting the schools.  On Tuesday, how many of the candidates said that they moved here for the schools?  You can look at measures or matrices, but what I ask you to do is take a look at the product that our schools provide.

Fellner:  I have had a passion for education since I was 3 or 4 years old, and wish to continue my service through election to the school board.  We need to manage our budget to get the most bang for the buck.

Eby – Why would I want to be on the school board?  For a love of the town, a love of the schools, and to help the children.

DiGregorio – It’s not for money or power, but to follow the lead my dad gave me.  I want to support the next generations.  It is all of our responsibility to provide for the next generation.

Council Candidate Forum

The format of tonight’s forum will be that each question will be answered by two candidates, then they’ll go on to the next question, and next two candidates answering.  With ten candidates in the running, it should be answering.

Tom Beehan opens with a brief biography.  He has been on City Council for eight years.  We’re beginning to address the issue of crime in our neighborhoods with increased patrols; we’ve begun to address housing and our older neighborhoods.  Lastly, we’re improving retail, particularly in working with some of the small retail neighborhoods like Jackson Square.

Jimmy Bouchard is introduced next; he doesn’t think that experience should be measured for this office, as he comes from the “best high school in America.”  The high school senior will turn 18 on May 22, qualifying him for office.  He says that he will not vote his own convictions, but those expressed by the people.  He plans to major in nuclear engineering at UTK next year.  He’d like to diversify the city’s economy by supporting small businesses; he’d like to go ahead and build the new senior center that was promised.

Anne Garcia Garland follows, citing that she no longer has any ties to special interests like DOE and their contractors.  She’s not entirely happy with the way things have gone recently, with a Council who claims to know what is best.  “Oak Ridgers need to decide who we’re going to be when we grow up.”  We need to take care of the existing retail we have, in order to encourage others to come.

John Alex Groff works at ORNL, at the SNS.  Vision for Oak Ridge: the population today is the same as it was when he was born.  Growing the population depends on growing the industrial base.  Why haven’t we tried to entice some of the off-road industry to Oak Ridge, with more than 700 miles of off road trails nearby?  

Rick Hasbrouck notes the lack of retail, and that improving retail would ease the property tax burden.  We need to add police officers rather than relying on overtime.  Says that he is new to Oak Ridge.

Martin McBride: undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Delaware, married 35 years.   Got his graduate degree in bionucleonics.  Worked the cleanup at Three Mile Island, then moved to oak Ridge to work for DOE.

Jane Miller has been an Oak Ridger since the age of three; she works in PR for BWXT.  She is disappointed in the last couple of years, but thinks that we’ve gone overboard with citizen input to the point of not being able to accomplish anything.  We need to be more flexible, more business-friendly, and need to treat our citizens as our customers.  Small, one-issue groups should not be able to halt progress; public input is important, but Council must make the hard decisions.  We need that can-do, Manhattan Project attitude that we’ve always had.

David Mosby, trusted for the last eight years on Council, is “ready to continue the work that we have started.”  Property tax revenue has been increased about $1M from the new, privately-owned DOE buildings.  Supports new initiatives like the recycling plan, the sustainability plan, and the acquisition of hybrid vehicles for the City.  We have to find better and more effective ways to combat crime and drugs.  We need to pay attention to our seniors, and to keep the pressure off of our property taxes.

Eric Tobler, an Oak Ridge native (1983 graduate), worked for Bechtel then Y-12.  Following a boating accident, he started Tobler Enterprises, which is both a landscaping and development enterprise.  Owns residential and retail property in Oak Ridge — if OakRidge fails, he will fail.

Tony Turner is a West Point graduate.  Followng his military retirement, he settled in Oak Ridge — his first hometown.  He is the program manager for Homeland Security at ORNL.  The City needs leadership now, vision + action.

(End of the introductory speeches)

Stan Mitchell asks: what does the City need to do to get citizen support for projects?

David Mosby responds that citizens have ample opportunity for input, and that they exercise those opportunities.

Tobler: Council needs to share what their goals are; we’re not sure what the goals and vision are.  If Council would show their plan to the citizens, then people would understand where we’re going.  It seems like all the talk is about taxes.

Q) What do you think the City could do to attract more young families, and what will happen if we don’t?

McBride: The City has a problem due to certain constraints.  We have, for so long, allowed people at ORNL and Y-12 to drift away from Oak Ridge, so when someone new comes in, they’re surrounded by people who live in Farragut instead of here.  First, we have to get them interested in coming here.

Garland: We need a different approach.  We need to concentrate in attracting the kind of families who would want to live here; for people who want to escape big city life and rat races elsewhere.  We should advertise to specific target audiences.  If we can make the town feel friendly to small business, that’s who takes the risk.

Q) What would you do to enhance revenues for the City:

Beehan: Because of a different relationship with DOE, we didn’t have to raise property taxes.  Some of the innovations like the private buildings are really helping.  The stimulus and cleanup programs have insulated us from the woes that other cities are facing.  DOE is the 900-lb gorilla in town, and the best way to deal with it is to work with them.

Groff: Growth is the answer.  We can grow through industry, retail, or commerical, but we have to grow.  We have to market ourselves to these businesses.  We have to work with City staff to help them understand we must bend over backward to make business welcome.  Voted against Crestpoint, but now realizes his error.

Q) Is there anything specifically that we could do as a City to attract more retailers?

Bouchard: Retailers look at many different aspects, such as demand and demographics.  It’s hard for a city our size to attract them, unless we show that we can attract more people to live and shop here.  A tax abatement would show that we are committed to helping them.

Hasbrouck: Need to work closely with the Chamber of Commerce; we need to advertise to let others know that Oak Ridge is open for business.  The realtor that was bringing Target, is no longer interested in working within Oak Ridge.

Q) What do you think should be the City’s #1 priority?

Miller: Jobs, housing, and retail.  We’re fine on jobs, we’re improving on housing, but our main problem is retail — one of the two only ways to get money into the City.  We can’t address other things until we fix that problem.

Turner: Crime is our most pressing issue.  We have a higher crime rate than most of the rest of Tennessee.  Most of our crime is driven by the drug trade.   Anderson County is the only county in our region that is not affiliated with the High Intensity Drug Trafficing Area effort.

Q) After a string of home invasions, has the additional overtime patrols and neighborhood watch been effective?

Hasbrouck: I haven’t seen the stats to know if we’re making progress or not.  Instead of overtime, we need to expand the police force.  Police and landlords can solve the problem.

Groff: I think these measures have been effective.  Criminals are getting caught, but they’re getting smarter.  They’re carrying smaller amounts of drugs, not carrying weapons, so they get less time.  We have eighty-some people in the police department, but only half of those on patrol.  We have eighty-some personnel in parks and recreation.  Overtime is not the answer.  We can’t afford to have someone out there who’s been working 16 hours straight.

Q) Roane State is trying to raise $5M; do you support the City contribution of $500k.

Mosby: I’m concerned about the repayment method, but appreciate the benefit that Roane State brings and think it will pay dividends in the long run.

McBride: I fully support that.  Where is the money coming from?  I would reduce the City’s lobbyist contract to find (part of) the money.  Our schools need continued funding increases, along with police and fire.  We must prioritize, and we take money from things at the bottom of the list.

Q) How does the City move forward, while preserving our historic areas?

Tobler: We cannot hold on to dilapidated buildings; if somehting must be preserved, could we use volunteer effort to do so?  Sometimes, volunteers are chastized for their efforts.

Garland: If we’re going to move forard, we have to know what direction “forward” is.  Am not necessarily a proponent of growth for the sake of growth.  I support any and all historical projects that do not require the City borrowing money.

Q) What is your take on the marina redevelopment?

Miller: I am in favor of the redevelopment.  I don’t want to harm the natural beauty, but think that we should have appropriate restaurants, restroom facilities, human-powered sports businesses.  But, we have to work with the developer, because the City does not have the money to fund it.  Does not want motorized boats there.

Bouchard: development of the marina is crucial.  The development shows that Oak Ridge cares about the options and opportunities, but we’ve done very little to promote the second-best rowing venue in the whole country.

Q) What is your position on red light and speed enforcement cameras in Oak Ridge?

Turner: I’m against the cameras, because of the very emotional reaction generated amongst the citizens.  I did not find a competting reason that justified installation against the will of the citizens.

Beehan: The cameras are part of an overall program to protect the children in this community.  The red light cameras are the same kind of technology as radar was a few years ago.  We have new school zones, we have crossing guards, and we’ve gotten a safe schools grant.  The cameras are not about revenue, they’re about safety.

Q) The majority of people at the DOE facilities live outside Oak Ridge.  Why do you think that is?

Groff: One of the reasons is because that’s where their co-workers live.  Once people get in the hands of Knoxville realtors, they’re lost to us.  We need a relocation specialist.  We have so much that Knoxville doesn’t have, but people don’t know that.

Hasbrouck: It’s not just DOE, it’s a lot of our employers.  A lot of it is that the Knoxville realtors get to them first.  Part of the problem is that our property tax rate is so high.  Red light cameras won’t help, either.

Q) Do we need a new senior center, and how do we fund it?

Miller: I think we’d all love to see a new senior center, but until we have more revenue, we cannot address these new issues (like police, Roane State, etc.).

Beehan: I’d love to have a new senior center, but we’re in a 5-year contract with the current building.  The building is only a place — we also need to look at the services offered, and those may be located elsewhere.  Back to police, no one is working 18 hours.  We are applying for five new officers under the stimulus funding.  The best way to address the problem NOW is to reward our officers with overtime.

Q) If you’re elected, how would you operate as a leader?

Bouchard: If elected, I promise that my seat will be a seat for the people.  No small group should hold up anything, but public opinion matters a great deal.  I will bring enthusiasm, a new viewpoint.  We need to target the 18-35 age group.

Turner: Leadership is the ability to influence people.  I have the ability to follow through.

Q) Share your opinions on west end development?

McBride: One of our significant challenges is that we’re a long, thin city.  The west end looks like a golden opportunity to develop retail centers, which turn out to be quite important.  One of our largest new developments is on the extreme west end, and we’ve invested a great deal in the infrastructure to get there.  We are in competition, and we have to develop the entire city.

Garland: Ditto.  If we can continue to encourage people to love their neighborhoods, we should do just fine there.

Q) The City has a tax abatement policy, awarding levels of support depending on the level of investment.  Do you support it, and why or why not?

Mosby: I support an abatement policy.  The abatement doesn’t make the deal, but is considered as something factored into the business plan.  It needs to be flexible, but structured enough so that there’s a reasonable assurance of a return on investment.  I would like to see it change to address the under-utilized properties, and try to help us grow the west end.

Tobler: Tax abatements can be a good thing, but need to be considered individually.  Big businesses push for them the hardest, but the small businesses usually need them the most.  We need to be ready to negotiate, so that more money can come back to the city once they’re on their feet.

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS: (Selected in random order)

Q) Why can’t we encourage all city employees to live here:

Turner: I have no idea why they would not.   We need to talk to the new employees and tell them the positive things about Oak Ridge.

Q) The percentage of economically disadvantaged kids in the school system is reaching new highs.  what would you propose to do?

Tobler: Get with the school board and empower them to do what needs to be done.

Q) Will you support a property tax increase to finance the city’s needs?

Mosby: it depends.  I ama proponent for trying to hold back on tax increases by finding new revenue sources, such as by the new alternative financed DOE buildings.  We’re trying to become more efficient.

Q) What are your plans for the waterfront, and have we asked for input from our rowing customers?

Miller: The city has been involved with rowing, and have an ongoing good relationship with the rowing community.  I’m not sure if we can measure the return on investment, but it’s a quality of life issue, and I don’t want to see it go away.

Q) How do you feel about fees, tolls, wheel tax on non-resident workers?

McBride: Memphis has struggled with this, having the highest property tax rate in the state.  I don’t favor that kind of option, because we might damage the relationship with those kinds of tactics.  I prefer a congressional investment, due to the service we provide for the nation.

Q) Should Oak Ridge focus on manufacturing business on the west end, being closest to the interstate?

Hasbrouck: We need to focus on business everywhere in the city.

Q) What steps will you take to improve housing, through incentives to homeowners?

Groff: There are several programs at the lab that deal directly with residential energy efficiency.  Unfortunately, none of those are in Oak Ridge.  Why not?

Q) Should the City use eminent domain to acquire the Alexander Inn for renovation?

Garland: I don’t really know the parameters.  I would reserve eminent domain for only the most critical community projects.  Taking property is pretty un-American.  We should have codes to prevent property owners from allowing their property to deteriorate.  We can condemn, but we cannot just take.

Q) How will you ensure that a developer who commits to a major project, will follow through and complete the project?

Bouchard: I would carefully consider the project at the outset, before it is started.  Follow through should be ensured before the developer begins.

Q) How can we encourage more business on Illinois, and keep Woodland homeowners happy?

Beehan: I don’t know.  We did a corridor study which now establishes guidelines as to how far you can go into a neighborhood, so now developers know what they can do, and homeowners know what they can do.  We’ve done good studies on the marina, and on sustainability; we could build consensus on other subjects as well.

Q) Is there too much cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce?

Turner: Since we have a contract, the relationship really should be client-customer.  But it needs to be more than that; it should be cooperative.  The Chamber does what it is called to do in its contract.  The relocation specialist is a tremendous opportunity.  The City could listen more to the chamber, particularly in removing the obstacles to new businesses coming in.

Q) What do you recommend to change the image of becoming old, to becoming younger and more vibrant.

Tobler: promote the lake and the schools.  bring people from Knoxville to events in Oak Ridge — concerts, etc.  We need to create places for people to have fun.

Q) If you could only accomplish one thing, what would it be?

Mosby: I would like to see the community figure out that it is a special place, and develop into something that is attractive, so it’s not hard to entice people and businesses to come here.

Q) Do you support capping property taxes for seniors, based upon economic need?

Miller: I think we need to study that, and we need to do that.

Q) What action plan to you have for a serious effort to develop the Oak Ridge Mall?

McBride: The mall occupies a very central place in our city.  No meaningful progress has occurred in the last 7 years.  We need to take initiative on the mall covenants; Wal-Mart has an incredible amount of influence over the rest of the property.  We need to approach Wal-Mart and ask for a break on the restrictions.

Q) How can a city like Maryville/Alcoa have extensive retail, when Oak Ridge doesn’t?

Hasbrouck: I don’t know.  There is opportunity in this city.  All of the anchors have stipulations in place at the mall; maybe that’s where we need to consider eminent domain.

Q) Where do the schools fall in your budget priorities?

Groff: I have two kids in school.  Education is #1 priority.  We have to focus on increasing education.  I’d like to see the vo-tech programs come back.

Q) What would you do to help the older retail centers?

Garland: We need to make adjustments to our sign ordinances, with signs on the turnpike for these business areas, directing traffic to these off-turnpike shopping centers.  Advocates forming a “small business” chamber of commerce, to strengthen their influence.

Q) What are your suggestions for older housing?

Bouchard: I am a proponent for reinforcing our residential neighborhoods.  We could extend incentives to homeowners to improve their buildings; the City could do something with the properties that have fallen under par.  The City could revise one portion of the city to like-new 1940s condition.  

Q) What would you propose to reduce crime in Oak Ridge?

Beehan: I would call a meeting of the police chief, sheriff, and district attorney, to establish cooperation and run the drug dealers out of town.  We need to bring on the five new police officers.  The neighborhood watch program is very successful, and I’m very proud of them.  It’s incredible the things that are happening.

Q) When consensus cannot be achieved, how to proceed?

Turner: on Council, the majority wins.  That doesn’t necessarily work with the citizens.  But at some point, you have to lead — vote your vision.

Tobler: you’re never going to make everybody happy, so you have to make the best decision for the city.

Mosby: A lot of times, we bail out before consensus can be reached.

Miller: Just the people at the microphone doesn’t necessarily represent the majority — phone callls and e-mails also factor in.

McBride: the high school project was the best example of building consensus.  The more that Council can do that, the more successful we’re going to be.

Hasbrouck: Consensus is a difficult thing among seven people, much less 27,000.  That said, more surveys would be a useful thing.

Groff: Dissent gives you the opportunity to explore the reasons for differing opinions.  You want everyone to walk away feeling like they got a good deal.

Garland: I don’t think the citizens expect consensus, but they expect an opportunity to be heard and considered.

Bouchard: Communication goes hand-in-hand with consensus.

Beehan: Consensus is good and I wish we could do it on every issue, but that’s not possible.  We do get a lot of communication, especially via e-mail.  There are issues where we do need to communicate better.  Ultimately, our job is to make the best decision we can based on the information we have.  It’s like sausage — you like the end product, but making it is not pretty.

The forum will air on BBB (channel 12).  Air times will be posted on www.bbbtv12.com.

Charter Congratulations

Although most of the nation waited expectantly for news of who will be our next President, I fell asleep before even the local results were in.

It was a long day for me, campaigning for the ten candidates I supported for Charter Commission.  I couldn’t vote for all ten, obviously — and it was hard to narrow my choices down to seven.  But they’re a fine group of people, including some folks new to city politics that I hope to see on the ballot again someday.

Five of ours were elected: Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, Leonard Abbatiello, Chuck Agle, and David McCoy.  Girlfriend pointed out in an early morning e-mail that the youngest one elected is 50-something… wondering if some of the town’s seniors bought into the idea spread by some of the opposition that the future of the Senior Center depended on election of the "right" candidates for Charter Commission.

That’s just silly, of course, but no sillier than some of the other half-truths or outright falsehoods spread during the campaign.

I’m also grateful for our five candidates who ran but were not elected: Mary Helen Rose, who is knowledgeable about the Charter; Ella DuBose, who served on the Charter Review Committee and is someone I’d really like to see continue in public life in Oak Ridge; Paula Flowers, a relative newcomer to Oak Ridge but with tremendous expertise and insight into the types of issues we’re dealing with; Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson who is reasonable, personable, and brings perspective to our challenges; and Mike Mahathy, a health physicist who is a bundle of energy  with great ideas, and committed to the future of this City.

Everyone put in a great deal of work, with most devoting as much (or more) effort to the success of the whole as to their personal campaigns.  That, to me, is a tremendous statement of readiness for public office — a willingness to put the success of an idea or effort above one’s personal goals.

Folks, my hat’s off to all of you.

Liveblogging: Charter Commission Forum

First, the rules: no questions will be allowed that are directed to a particular candidate.  Questions are screened to eliminate redundancy.  Opening remarks are limited to two minutes, and answers to questions are limited to a minute and a half.  No video recording is allowed; the media is allowed to tape the forum, but are not allowed to permit the recording to be altered in any way, nor used for any candidate advertising.

Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, and Dave McCoy had their opening comments read by representatives, as they were unable to be here.

Each candidate makes an opening comment.  Of the first six, Chuck Agle is the first to stay within his time limit, but finding time to remind the audience of our history with district elections — that candidates were elected with fewer than 100 votes, and that in 1971, more than half of the council races (seven of twelve) were uncontested.

Ella Dubose compares the city to a computer, with the City Charter as the operating system.  We’re charged now with determining whether an "upgrade" is needed, especially since all software doesn’t work with all systems.

Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson Middle School, says it’s essential to be open minded and reasonable when considering changes to the City Charter.  District representation didn’t work — Oak Ridge can’t afford to experiment with failed policies.  We need to work together.

Mike Mahathy points out that challenges are opportunities, but the future of Oak Ridge rests in the results of this Charter Commission.

Mary Helen rose recalls that she was the recording secretary for the last Charter Commission, and served on the Charter Review Committee last year.  "When I’m unhappy with Council, it’s usually because I don’t like one of their decisions, but I doubt that I would be any happier if they were elected by district, or if there were nine instead of seven."

*  *  *

Questions from the local media are next on the agenda.  Stan Mitchell, publisher of the Oak Ridge Observer, asks first:

Because the current City Council is elected at large, it has been said that this leads to some areas being unfairly represented.

Abbatiello: Both forms of government are representative; it’s just a different technique.  Districts create yet another sub group.  It can work reasonably well, until you never have enough candidates to compete.  Our primary issues are citywide, and we need to find the technique that allows us to focus on these citywide issues.

Burns: Two recent decisions were on the mall, and on Crestpoint.  Council’s votes on those matters indicate that Council is not hearing, or not listening, to the people.

Agle: During Abbatiello’s term, our tax rate remained relatively stable.  If we changed to districts representation, there would be no hope of restraint in spending.

Dittner: The Woodland hotel issue illustrates that the current Council is not working, that Council is not listening to neighborhoods.

DuBose: I believe that our Council represents all of the city, and that they’re working on neighborhood revitalization.

John Huotari asks, why districts?

Fain: A broad opportunity for people to be listened to, strengthening the health of our democracy, would be supported by district representation.

Flowers:  There are pros and cons for district representation.  You can get into some one-upsmanship, with Council members refusing to vote for a project because another district council member voted against a different project in their own district.  "If you don’t like the way the coach is calling the game, you don’t change the rules."

Humphries:

Linn: what concerms me about district representation is that it takes away from the individual’s voting power.  Now, we vote for 100% of council members; under the CDAR proposal, one would only be able to vote for up to four of nine.  The Founding Fathers did provide for a blended government (districts for the lower house, at-large for the senate), but they also made the constitution very difficult to amend.  It is a concern how easily our charter can be amended.

Stan Mitchell asks if we need to raise the threshold for referendums.

Mahathy: I believe that the standard for a referendum should be raised.

Jones: Of course we need to have referendums.  We wouldn’t have this call for change if they felt like they were being heard.

Rose: I’m inclined to think that it should be a little more difficult to call for a referendum, especially for a Charter Commission.

Schramm: Referendums are absolutely necessary.  This is not the end of the process, it is the beginning.  If we elect a Charter Commission

Jjohn Huotari asks, what other issues do you think the Charter Commission ought to consider.

Abbatiello: the democratic process is designed to garner input in a respectful manner.  He outlines the sections of the charter, but does not answer the question.

Burns: only interested in the district question.

Agle: Need to point out the unintended consequences.  Recent court rulings indicate that we may end up with a ruling that we must also have a district or hybrid school board.  The charter is an opportunity to put into place some planning mechanisms.  We have no real plan for growth going forward, so every time there’s an opportunity — it’s a surprise!  We need to take the surprise out of the process.

Dittner: I got into this only to discuss districts and the number of council members.

DuBose: I think the things that should be considered is driven by the citizens.

Stan Mitchell asks, who do you think runs this city, and do you think a strong mayor form of government should be considered?

Fain: On the map of the city, there is a strong pattern of where Council members, as well as people who sit on city boards, live.  There are neighborhoods that are seriously out of balance int he amount of power.  (She didn’t answer the question).

Flowers: With the City Manager form of government, you have a strong separation of powers.  In a town this size, you’ve got to have someone whose administrative role is to attend to the day-to-day form of government.  I’m a strong proponent of the City Manager form of government.

Humphries: It should be the City Manager who runs the city, but Council meets only once per months.  Now, they have a meeting before the meeting, which is better, because the other way looked too much like rubber-stamping the City Manager’s proposals.  I have no personal feelings on the strong mayor form.

Linn: a balance of legislative policy with city council and with the city manager dealing with the business seems to work well.  I would be open-minded to look into something like that, but the current practice seems to work well.

Iskander: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But I think it is broken.

Mahathy: If you’re not happy with the results, vote for a new Council.  If elected, I will move to adjourn on the first meeting.

Jones: 26 cities in Tennessee have a mixed form of government.  She recalls that in Knoxville, a Council member named O’Connor favored at-large, and a council member named Cas Walker favored a mix of at large and districts.

Rose:  We keep hearing that we’re not represented, but I believe that our 7-member Council represents us well.  When we are unhappy, it’s not because the Council member doesn’t live in our district, it’s because we’re unhappy with some decision that was made.

Schramm: the previous charter commission didn’t even consider districts.  Running at-large takes a lot of time, and more importantly, a lot of money.  People who run are those with the deepest pockets.

*  *  * (5-minute break) *  *  *

Candidates have answered audience questions, but there wasn’t really any new information brought forth.

 

The Charter Commission

Jerry Marrow writes, in a letter to the Oak Ridger today, that "there is danger on the horizon with the election of this Charter Commission."
 
That is true — though it may be the only thing he wrote that is true.  Let’s take the rest of the errors one by one:

Like most small towns, our city has been run for the benefit of a few. The rest of us pay the highest taxes in the state and get the least amount for it. We’re number one.

Um, no.  We all pay the same tax rate.  Even businesses that receive tax abatements, like Bristol Place apartments, are still paying the same tax rate as everyone else… the abatement just defers taxation on the full value of their improvements for a few years.  So, they’re still paying a lot more in property taxes than they did before the development.  And they’ll pay even more after the abatement period.

We’re all taxed equally; businesses pay taxes on 40% of their assessed value, and homeowners pay taxes on 25% of their assessed value.  It’s all the same tax rate.

Secondly, our tax rate is not the highest in the state — see for yourself.  With a combined City/County tax rate of $5.45 (that’s the Anderson Co. part; the Roane Co. part is lower), compare that to Memphis ($7.29), Germantown and Bartlett ($5.63), Knoxville ($5.50), and others.  Yes, our tax rate is higher than most.  However, we get more than most — would you compare our schools, our police department, our refuse removal, to any of those places?

We get a lot of bang for the buck in Oak Ridge.

The term for a council member would be two years.  These people are like gym socks, you can’t change them often enough.

I challenge you to ask anyone who has served in local elected office — current or former — if their first two years of service were the most effective.  I’m confident that every one would concede that there’s a learning curve, and that they became more effective once they came up to speed.  So rather than gym socks, let’s use a little different analogy: would you change dentists every two years, because it’s better to have one fresh out of dental school than one with more experience?

Maybe not.

We should have district representation with the council member living in that district. I do not trust and neither should you trust somebody to take care of your district that doesn’t live there. As I’ve documented before, my area and your area is being cheated out of city monies.

Oak Ridge is small enough that people living in the various geographic areas (voting precincts?) have much more in common than differences.  The population of ONE Nashville City Council district is more than half the size of all of Oak Ridge — and they have 40 people on City Council, not counting the Mayor!

The last part of his blurb is one that you should think about very carefully:  in the previous paragraph, he complains about the tax rate.  Next, he wants more spent on his district.  Is it not natural to conclude that, if Council members were elected by district, each would want more spent in his or her district than in others — regardless of need or overall benefit to the City as a whole?  Think earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

Lastly, the allegation of some areas being "cheated out of city monies" is very serious, but no specifics are offered.  It’s instructive to note that the district (precinct) that has received the most in city expenditures during the term of this Council — Highland View — does not have a Council member residing in that district.

*  *  *  *  *
I could go on, refuting his errors line-by-line until the end, but the picture should be clear enough by now.  Early voting begins a week from tomorrow; visit www.OakRidgeCharter.com and get information on the issue and candidates.

You can vote for seven… it might be wise to make your list.

Oak Ridge District Elections

Since some folks decided that we need to study and perhaps revise the City Charter again (it was just done in 2004, and updated last month), I thought it would be worthwhile to really study the political history of Oak Ridge. 

First of all, what did districts look like in Oak Ridge?  Not surprisingly, they looked a lot like our current precinct structure… except that we had a couple extra precincts then that we don’t have now, and we’ve added a couple that we didn’t have back then.  "Elm Grove" is now part of Glenwood, "Linden" is split between Robertsville and West Hills, and Oak Hills is now its own precinct — the city’s largest.  Hendrix Creek is made up of neighborhoods that didn’t exist back then, as is Lawnville (Rarity Ridge).  Cedar Hill was later split between Glenwood and Pine Valley, I think.

If that’s as clear as mud, perhaps a map would help.

Council members were elected only in the districts they represented from 1959 to 1974.  From 1975 to 1986,  council members were nominated by district (required to live in the district), but were elected at-large by voters citywide.

A couple of things caught my attention from those years: in the earliest phase, some candidates were elected to make decisions affecting the whole city with only a minimum number of votes — one with as few as 117, and quite a few with less than 200.  In the second phase, where district representatives were elected at-large, sometimes the candidate who won his or her district did not win the confidence of voters throughout the city, and someone else was elected to represent that district.

Presently, we don’t have districts.  Candidates run at-large, and the top three or four vote getters (depending on which cycle of staggered terms we’re in) are elected.  All are elected at-large, all represent all citizens.  On a positive note, if I call one city council member and don’t feel like my concern was given fair consideration, I can pick up the phone and call another one.  And another.  We get to pick the one we like best, not necessarily the one who lives closest.

Obviously, I think the present system works best.  I don’t see how makng it easier to elect someone with fewer votes could possibly be a good thing for Oak Ridge.  But I do remain interested in why some people feel unrepresented, and exactly what they would like our representatives to do differently.

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