January 2007

Life’s Lessons

Life is full of lessons, and I learned many from the two wise and caring people to whom I was born. Some were easy, and some were hard — but the hard ones were usually those I learned on my own.

My father taught me that pouring kerosene in a yellowjacket nest after dark will kill the hive by morning. However, I extrapolated from this (being expected to mow the lawn before nightfall) that pouring gasoline down that hole on a hot summer day, then tossing a match into it, would work just as well.

Explaining the burned grass and the enlarged hole in the ground was not one of my more pleasant learning experiences. However, I still maintain that it wasn’t as bad as hitting a yellowjacket nest with the lawnmower.

* * *

My dad taught me from the time I was very young that we have power as consumers, and we should exercise that power judiciously. That includes the right to support with my dollars the people whom I believe to be assets to the community, and the right to deny my dollars to those who detract from the same. Similarly, we have the opportunity to share our experiences with others – I’ve referred many people to local businesses whose owners are good stewards of responsibility, and have shared my refusal to do business with a few as well.

Since Dad worked for Union Carbide, we never bought any batteries except those made by Union Carbide. It mattered not that K-25 didn’t make batteries — it was company loyalty, pure and simple. It didn’t matter if it was Christmas night and the company store was closed; we simply didn’t buy batteries until they could be purchased from the right company.

On an individual level, it’s a very small impact, but small impacts add up over time. I’ll never hesitate to recommend my favorite hardware store, not only for the superb customer service, but also because the proprietor of that business is well known for giving back to the community. I’ve often recommended my favorite car dealer for his honesty and integrity, but also because he’s the partner in education for the elementary school that my children attended.

And though it happens much less often, there are a very few folks with whom I just won’t do business, or recommend such.

That is my right, and yours as well.

Monday’s Meetings

City Council Work Session

The Oak Ridge City Council held a work session at 5:30 with a formal presentation on the proposed SuperTarget shopping center atop Pine Ridge. Steve Jenkins’ powerpoint presentation is up on the City’s website, with a lot of really useful information about the expected impact, best and worst case scenarios, etc.

The President of GBT was on hand, saying that he doesn’t “go looking for mountaintops to build on,” and that the number of times they’ve asked for City assistance is very few — four, to be exact.

City Manager Jim O’Connor spoke at the beginning, noting that the City has already received some feedback. He reminded everyone that the City does not own the mall, and that the Wal-Mart covenants (along with those held by Sears, JCPenney, Belk, and Goody’s) are fairly restrictive, and wouldn’t allow for a Target in the mall area that most of us know as “Downtown.” That makes me think that most of the comments so far have been along the lines of “yes, we want a Target and associated shops, but we want it in the middle of town.”

Me too. But it doesn’t work that way.

Willie Golden raised a valid question: when Clinton was recruiting Aisan Automotive (what he referred to as “Asian,” but others pronounce as “I-san”), we, along with Anderson County, stepped up on short notice to help with incentives… even though the benefit to Oak Ridge was sort of minimal. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that Clinton and Anderson County — both of whom benefit financially, the County most of all — might step in and help with the $10M for this project.

An informal public information session has been scheduled for Monday, February 5, 5-7 p.m., in the multipurpose room of the Central Services Complex. Read through the presentation, and show up with any questions you may have.

* * *

School Board

At last night’s School Board meeting, the new attendance policy (the 8th revision, I think, and at least the third to come to the Board) was approved on second reading, contingent upon revisions to the accompanying administrative bulletin.  My concerns with the original proposal were addressed to a great extent, although I will be paying attention to the implementation to make sure that we have not created inadvertent consequences. It’s part of the art of compromise.

The other item of significance was that we approved a calendar change for Oak Ridge High School, so that students will finish one week earlier (May 18 for seniors; May 25 for 9th-11th grades). THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO ELEMENTARY OR MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS — only the high school, for construction purposes… so if you have younger kids, don’t plan a vacation before June 1 (except for Spring Break, of course).

We’ll still be in compliance with State regulations regarding the number of days and hours of school, but if we should have more than two snow days, we could have a problem.

Let’s hope that both work out as planned.

Breakfast with the Legislators, 1/29/07

This morning marked the first of the Breakfast with the Legislators meetings, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge.

Senator McNally, recently named Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, noted that among the General Assembly’s first tasks will be receipt of the Governor’s roughly $28 billion budget.  Other issues expected to surface quickly are a proposed increase in the tobacco tax (currently, one of the lowest in the nation), and adjustments to the BEP — the State’s formula for funding public K-12 education.  The General Assembly is also likely to consider an income cap for the property tax freeze for seniors, which passed as a constitutional amendment last year, and potentially a minimum wage discussion.

Jim Hackworth noted that he and Dennis Ferguson (Roane Co.) had worked previously on getting the widening of Highway 58/95 (the west end of the turnpike out to Horizon Center) on track, and that those efforts would continue.  He also told the group that gas tax revenues (allocated for road projects) have not risen — that as the cost of fuel increases, people buy less, and tax revenues remain flat.  Given that the cost of labor and materials does not remain static, the availability of funds to complete such projects is dwindling.

Both McNally and Hackworth addressed the subject of education funding, with the consensus being that it’s more likely they’ll increase funding for at-risk students and those who speak English as a second language than to completely overhaul the formula.  This seems consistent with the Governor’s message as well.

One of the topics brought up by a questioner involved the lottery scholarships, as relates to a letter to the editor in this morning’s News-Sentinel (Slight deviations can disqualify good students, third letter down).  Not all students who lose the lottery scholarship do so for lack of good grades or enrollment, it seems.  I just heard from Alpha today that a math honors student at UT lost his scholarship because he earned too many credits during a summer internship.

McNally and Hackworth agreed that the system isn’t perfect, and will require some adjustment.

Other concerns raised by audience members were the long lines at the ballot box last August, the need for a dedicated revenue stream for Pre-K funding, and questions about how education foundations might affect BEP funding (it doesn’t).

The next Breakfast with the Legislators will be on Feb. 26 at the Civic Center, and is open to the public.  If you have questions, come on down!

Lottery Scholarships: an odd view

Eligibility for the Tennessee Lottery Scholarship is very simple: a 3.0 grade point average upon graduation from high school, or a 21 on the ACT (required for admission to all Tennessee public universities).

Either / Or.

It allows for both kinds of students to succeed: those who have learned the material and can adequately perform on a test, as well as those who have learned the material and demonstrated as much in classroom performance, regardless of test-taking ability.

It is rather generous in terms of the preparation needed to succeed in a 4-year college or university, allowing also those who will seek an associate’s degree, technical school, or who will attend community college first.

Yet, Sen. Thelma Harper blasts the lottery scholarship program in today’s Chattanooga Times:

State Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, today criticized the Tennessee Education Lottery scholarship program for shortchanging black and low-income students, calling it a “disgrace.”

“I want you to tell me what’s wrong that black people can’t get scholarships,” she told members of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s regular quarterly meeting. “It sends a horrible message, and someone needs to re-evaluate how those lottery scholarships are being made.”

It’s a deeper question, Sen. Harper. The problem is not with the lottery scholarship; it’s with educating poor and black students to the same levels as everyone else. Any student who cannot attain either a 3.0 GPA or a 21 on the ACT doesn’t need to be in college — they cannot and will not succeed.

The problem is, to a large degree, cultural. It is one of role models, and of “fitting in” with the various groups of other students that inevitably form in school. It is a problem to some degree of parental involvement, expectations, and discipline.

Playing the race card in this way insultingly implies that poor and black students are unable to attain these minimum standards for college readiness — and it just isn’t true. They ARE able.

The real question is, how do we make them want to attain a higher educational standard?

BEP Review: Final Report

The BEP Review Committee met again this morning to resolve their last piece of unfinished business: to issue a recommendation on system-level fiscal capacity, deferred from the Nov. 1 Annual Report.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a resolution directing the BEP Review Committee to provide a “consensus recommendation on a system-level fiscal capacity model.” This was a tall order, as the BEP Review Committee is by definition representative of all constituencies — large, urban school systems; small, rural school systems; municipal and independent school systems; the House and Senate Education Committee chairs; the State Board of Education; Tennessee School Boards Association; the Tennessee Municipal League; the Tennessee County Commissioners Association; along with various representatives from State offices like TACIR, the Comptroller, the Governor’s office, etc.

Because everyone on the committee represents a particular interest, it’s impossible to gain consensus on anything that’s going to harm some, in order to help others. And, as was pointed out in today’s meeting, defining what is needed to meet the goals of state education policy is the group’s real focus — fiscal policy really belongs in the hands of the General Assembly.

I agree.

Ultimately, the committee agreed that they cannot reach what the Legislature demanded: a “consensus recommendation on a system-level funding formula.” Their recommendation will be that the system-level funding formula be combined with a broader legislative discussion of adequacy in education funding statewide.

Several groups are now working on defining “adequacy” in terms of education funding, including one working with the University of Washington, sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Another is the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

A second resolution passed today directed the State Board of Education to conduct a study of current school system expenditures by category, in order to determine the areas in which the BEP is falling short of meeting the needs of school systems, and that this study begin soon — not next Fall, as is usually the case.

Several people on the committee surprised me by making a rather dramatic turnaround from previous positions, including TACIR’s Harry Green, who said (prior to his motion on the recommendation, which passed):

I hate to spend so much time talking about fiscal capacity when the system is failing. Redistrubuting money isn’t going to change the educational outcome if we are not addressing adequacy.

Gee, couldn’t we have saved about three years if everyone realized this sooner? Still, better late than never.

We’ll have to watch the Legislature very closely this year, but if they truly comprehend this recommendation, it will be okay.

Thoughts about Target

Reader “Girlfriend” e-mailed with a good question about the Target deal:

Ok then, if they would have gotten a tax abatement what would that have amounted to and can you use the analogy that if we would have done it with the tax break it would have cost the city more? 

I looked up the abatement answers on the IDB Retail Incentive Matrix, and the estimated property tax revenues from notes I took in a meeting yesterday, and came up with something close to an answer.  It doesn’t substitute for a real answer at the work session next week, but I think it’s close.

You know, the tough part about representing Oak Ridgers is that you folks never ask easy questions.

Based on the IDB guidelines for retail incentives, they would be eligible for a 50% property tax abatement over 15 years.

But, the (expected) assessed value of the property, when completed, is substantially less than the actual investment (probably $65 to $70 million).  Steve Jenkins estimated the annual property tax revenue (to Oak Ridge only) to be $282,849 per year.  So, if they got a 50% abatement for 15 years, that would only total $2,121,367.50.  Now, if the County property taxes were abated as well – which Oak Ridge does have the power to do – the value of the abatement would be closer to $5M.

That’s still just about half of the investment that Oak Ridge is being asked to make.

However, the assessment of retail property is based in part on sales volume, so the busier the place is, the more the property is judged to be worth.  AND more sales tax revenue is generated, which is the real cash flow from this kind of development and the one that most benefits the schools countywide.

It IS a risk.  However, our retail sector desperately needs a jump-start; having a healthier retail environment would also help us to attract some of the high-dollar residents that we’ve been losing to west Knox County in the last 10 years, which boosts not only the property tax base but also the sales tax revenues.

Think of economic development as a three-legged stool: housing, jobs, and retail.  For the last decade, we’ve had the jobs, but housing and retail were on the decline.  For the last 6 years or so the City has really put a focus on residency, so we finally have some new housing options that are beginning to pay off.  However, while that was happening, retail continued to slide, and slid so far that it’s negatively impacting the housing market (and possibly even impacting industry’s ability to recruit people to work here).  We need to get this third leg stabilized, then we’ll have a healthy balance.

I’m still feeling burned over the effort I put into Arnsdorff’s mall proposition, because he turned out to be a snake-oil salesman.  I don’t like being fooled, so I’m being tentative on this one.  However, I’ve already seen some differences, and GBT actually has a known track record.

Arnsdorff didn’t, and still doesn’t.

AtomicTumor seems to have gotten behind this idea as well.

Council Budget & Finance 2007

The Oak Ridge City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 6, 2007 and Tuesday, February 20, 2007, in the Municipal Building Training Room.

The agendas for those meetings are as follows:

February 6

    Budgetary Model and Debt Service

February 20

    Public Works Department Budget
    Recreation and Parks Department Budget

A Meeting of Interest

Oak Ridge City Council will hold a work session next Monday, January 29, in the courtroom of the Municipal Building. The subject will be the proposed Super-Target shopping center, and the extent of the City’s involvement.

It will be televised on Channel 12, but it would be a good meeting to attend if you’re interested.

Although a significant investment will be required of the City to make this deal happen (due to the very high cost of developing this particular piece of property), I’ve seen Steve Jenkins’ revenue projections, and I definitely think it’s worth talking about. Like many, I feel totally burned on the Mall deal (although we never put any money into that deal — the City’s abatement doesn’t kick in until Arnsdorff spends at least $10M of his own money and fills up most of the empty space), and I don’t want to be fooled again.

Make no mistake: there is risk involved. But given the potential tangible return, it’s a risk I’m almost comfortable with. When you throw in the intangibles, it looks even better.

But, this is not a decision that your city leaders are going to go forward with unless people come forward and express their support. That was expressly stated in the original announcement yesterday, and repeated last night and this afternoon.

The numbers part is complicated, but it’s not as bad as the BEP formula. Time is of the essence. Get educated about this proposal, talk about the pros and cons, and let’s make this decision as a community, one way or the other.


City Council Meeting, Jan 22

After a nice resolution in honor of "School Board Appreciation Week," Council got down to real business.

First, an ordinance was adopted designating the Highland View Redevelopment area as a residential rental inspection district. The whole resolution is here (page 25), but in essence, it permits housing inspections in that district only.

They approved a resolution accepting $1.3 million in payment in lieu of taxes, which Councilman Abbatiello noted was about 1/10th of what it should be. Nonetheless, it was unanimously approved.

Another greenway was approved, continuing the Melton Lake Greenway under the bridge at Bull Run, which will hopefully connect our greenway with those in Knox County at some point. (Knox County? What about the rest of Oak Ridge?) Councilman Beehan brought up a need to eventually connect the West end to the East side, coming through the middle of town.

A resolution was approved to award the contract for shoreline stabilization at Melton Hill Lake. Part of the stabilization will occur on private property (now Flatwater Grill), but the owner will make a payment in lieu of taxes in the amount of the shoreline stabilization cost. A new dock is included.

Planning Commission: Council re-appointed Linda Brown and Marty Cole to the Planning Commission. There will be eight elections up for grabs at the Feb. 19th Council meeting on various boards and committees.

Golden reported on the meetings of the Budget & Finance Committee, which will meet on the first and third Tuesdays at 5:00 p.m., each month leading up to the budget process. The first meeting will be held on Feb. 6, and a calendar for all meetings will be up by the beginning of February.

Abbatiello called attention to the fact that the "corridor study" is coming up, which he promises that the Planning Commission will be apprised of. Secondly, all members got a copy of the tax incentives report "which was incomplete, as it lacks a return on investment on each of these items." O’Connor said that information would be provided. Lastly, Abbatiello asked whether any progress has been made on the AMSE property; David Bradshaw noted (as president of the AMSE Foundation) that information should be forthcoming by the end of the year.

THE BIG DEAL:

The City Manager addressed the possibility of siting a super-Target anchored shopping center (450,000 sq. ft.). The City would have to provide $10.5 million, to be paid from the redevelopment of the property. Craig Cole of GBT explained that Oak Ridge is "underserved by retail," but the desired locations are all along Illinois Avenue, where there is a shortage of available land.

Pine Ridge is a development challenge, but it’s available. They plan to call it Crestpointe, but acknowledge the significant challenge of developing the site. That’s why they need $10.5M. Much more dialogue and discussion will occur at the work session next Monday evening.

O’Connor says there will be risk for the City, as well as for GBT, but they’ve checked and double-checked the development potential and now desire community input. Really.

Bradshaw notes that it’s an opportunity, but it’s a big investment, and it will require a comfort level and approval from the community before Council will be prepared to approve the project. However, upon questioning from Councilman Beehan, it was agreed to try and hold the meeting in the Council chambers so that it can be televised, and to try to adjust the time so that School Board members may attend prior to our meeting at 7 p.m. (Thank you, Tom!)

Wrapping up was simply a discussion of meeting dates, followed by the appearance of citizens (there were none).

Target is coming to town!

The Chamber of Commerce sent out a notice late Friday about a major economic development announcement at 5 p.m. today, and I attended.  There are plans for a SuperTarget and associated shopping center in an ambitious project atop Pine Ridge.

It’s not a sure thing — there are some concessions to be made from the City, which will be briefly outlined at tonight’s City Council Meeting.  More details will be made available at a work session on January 29, which I can’t attend, since it’s scheduled for the same time as our January School Board meeting.

However, the sales tax revenue stream to the schools would be an enormous help, not to mention the availability of more goods locally.

Watch tonight’s meeting if you can.  I’ll try to blog it, if I can pick up the library’s wireless from there.

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