Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council Rotating Header Image

Where will the money come from?

citybillThe second question from the Progress PAC was about generating revenue for city services and schools.

Question: What is your plan to generate additional revenue to support or enhance city and/or school services? Give at least two specific examples.

My response:

1. At this time, it is critically important for the city to attract a new generation of residents to take the place of the city’s founding generations – and repopulate the homes and neighborhoods that they are leaving behind as they depart the scene. In particular, we need new residents who have both the financial capacity and personal interest to support our city services and our excellent schools. Success in this will require a coordinated strategy with many parts. To help ensure a successful strategy, I believe the city needs to get started with a third-party marketing study aimed at finding out what today’s younger generations are looking for in a community, why people who have located here recently have chosen Oak Ridge, and most particularly why some people who work here don’t live here. All of us have anecdotal information and pet theories on these topics, but I’m not aware that anyone has solid data. Consulting studies have a bad reputation (and, no, I don’t know where the money will come from to pay for this one), but I believe this is a study that we can’t afford not to do. It should go without saying that the community will need to follow up on what we learn from the marketing study, both with promotional efforts and with measures to enhance the attractiveness of the community.

2. User fees alone will not provide all the additional revenue we need, but they can help recoup the costs of certain city services. In particular, by asking people who don’t live in the city (or own businesses here) to pay higher fees for use of recreational facilities and services (such as summer camps) that are heavily supported by city property tax, the city could help people recognize the potential benefits of living here. (Note; User fees have been increased in recent years, and there are nonresident fees for some recreation programs, but the nonresident fees do not come close to compensating the city for the costs of serving nonresidents.)

3. I believe the city should renew its efforts to get the U.S. Government to fulfill its obligations to the community for the special burdens imposed on the city as an “atomic energy community.” Not only does Oak Ridge deal with the historical legacies of the Manhattan Project and Cold War, but it continues to host a huge industrial complex that pays very little toward the community services it depends on – much less the unique costs and burdens of hosting that complex. A new initiative to obtain more federal support is not going to be quick and easy – a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to ask for higher payments in lieu of taxes (as proposed by some Council members) will not accomplish the goal and might in fact prevent success in the long term.

4. Sooner or later (and probably sooner), the city will need to raise the property tax rate to help keep up with inflation. In view of the stagnation of middle-class incomes (real median household income, here and elsewhere, is still below pre-recession levels) and the adverse effect of the tax rate on marketing of the city, this won’t be an easy decision, but the city and schools can’t do more with less forever.

5. Oak Ridge should support federal and state initiatives to collect sales tax on online and mail-order purchases and distribute the proceeds to the purchaser’s local jurisdiction(s). As a customer, I don’t look forward to having sales tax added to the cost of my online purchases. However, I think this is needed for fairness to brick-and-mortar stores and I expect that Oak Ridge will benefit from the additional revenue.

6. Finally, the community (both city government and the private sector) needs continuous efforts to recruit new business and industry and to support the success of existing businesses that contribute to the local economy, as well as our tax base.

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A bit of vision

Cedar Hill ParkNow that the deadline for answers to the Progress PAC’s questions has passed (and it’s no longer possible for candidates to copy off each other’s papers), I’ll post the responses that I provided to their questions. These were interesting questions — you don’t have to be a Chamber member to be interested in candidates’ answers.

Question 1: Please explain your vision for the City of Oak Ridge for the next 5 years.

My response: Five years from now I want Oak Ridge to be recognized as one of the most desirable residential communities (ideally, the single most desirable community) in the Knoxville metropolitan area. Attainment of this vision will require significant progress in retail development, housing/neighborhood quality, and effective marketing of the community. It also requires maintaining and enhancing the quality of our schools, public services and amenities, as well as minimizing increases in residential property taxes.

An additional vision that doesn’t fold easily into the above: I want the Manhattan Project National Historic Park to be up and running, with national park logos on highway signs leading into Oak Ridge, a revitalized AMSE that is successfully transitioning to nonprofit operation independent from DOE, regular tours (paid for by visitor fees) of Manhattan Project historic facilities, and increased visitor recreational access to federal lands (such as the Wheat community and Freels Bend) that represent the historical landscape where the Manhattan Project was sited.

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It’s candidate forum season

citysealThere are lots of candidate forums and “meet the candidates” occasions scheduled this year for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • Wednesday, September 17 – League of Women Voters forum for school board and state candidates (yes, you already missed it!)
  • Thursday, September 25 – League of Women Voters forum for Oak Ridge City Council, 7 pm, Oak Ridge High School amphitheater (upstairs from the lobby)
  • Tuesday, September 30 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for City Council candidates, 7:30 am at the Chamber offices (informal meet and greet starts at 7:00 am; light breakfast available)
  • Wednesday, October 1 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for school board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 2 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for school board candidates (see September 30 for time and location, etc.)
  • Wednesday, October 8 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for city council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 9 – DFET (Democracy for East Tennessee) meet-the-candidates event, 7:00 pm at Oak Ridge Civic Center gym
  • Tuesday, October 14 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road

Added September 26: There’s also a local League of Women Voters forum about the state constitutional amendment referendum questions on the ballot:

  • Tuesday, October 7, 7 pm, at Pollard Auditorium.

Early voting starts Wednesday, October 15, and runs through Thursday, October 30. Election day is Tuesday, November 4.

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About the Chamber of Commerce PAC

EllenSmithSign Although I went to work on Monday, did some campaign business, and attended a City Council work session, it seemed like I was never far from discussions about the news (added: second news source) that the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce established a political action committee (PAC) that is screening the candidates for City Council and School Board to decide who they will support. People were asking for my opinions. Here’s the on-my-blog version of what I told the news media:

I have no objection to the Chamber establishing a political action committee. As I see it, the Oak Ridge Chamber has the same right as any organization to create a PAC to endorse and support candidates of the PAC’s choosing. People who are upset about this should consider that PACs must operate in the public eye, so the creation of this PAC should give citizens more information about the political activities of the Chamber membership than we have had in the past.

I plan to complete the questionnaire that the Progress PAC sent to candidates — and I look forward to an interview with the PAC committee as an opportunity for dialogue with some of Oak Ridge’s business leadership. It’s valuable for candidates to exchange ideas with all citizens and learn more about their interests and concerns. There’s no denying that the Chamber and I have been on opposing sides in some major local issues, but I believe the Chamber and the business community it represents are particularly important groups to talk with, learn from, and try to work cooperatively with for the good of the city.

I’m confident that no city funds will go into this PAC. That would be a stupid mistake for the Chamber and the PAC, and the Chamber leadership isn’t stupid. PACs generally get their money from member donations, and I expect that’s what the Progress PAC plans to do. I think it is legitimate to be concerned that Progress PAC might be trying to get more City money for the Chamber, but (based on the questionnaire and my past experiences with the Chamber) it appears to me that their goal is to encourage a strong business climate (not to augment the Chamber budget).

It would be presumptuous to say whether or not I would accept support from the Progress PAC. No support has been offered and I have no particular reason to expect it. However, I believe in transparency, so if the PAC offers to support me as a candidate, I will definitely tell the public about the offer and my decision — and I will disclose the information again if I’m ever in a position to vote on a matter related to business between the City and the Chamber.

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Campaign Announcement

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signI’ve posted the campaign announcement that went to the Oak Ridge news media on Friday.

UPDATE (9/18/2014): It appeared in the Oak Ridger on September 18.

UPDATE (9/24/2014): Now “Former Council member Smith running for City Council” is posted on Oak Ridge’s online news outlet.

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The Friendship Bell is special

20100926173814 The International Friendship Bell in A.K. Bissell Park is special. It’s unique, it has substantial aesthetic value, it symbolizes principles (peace and friendship) that everyone ought to embrace, and it is quintessentially Oak Ridge. If anything erected in the city during the decades I’ve lived here deserves to be revered in the future as a historic landmark, it’s the bell and the structure that houses it.

I was very disappointed by the news that the wooden bell structure had deteriorated and was no longer safe. The bell will be “out of commission” for some time — until the community rebuilds its support structure. I am one of the many people who believe that the structure should be rebuilt according to the original aesthetic design, but with structural members that will not succumb when exposed to the elements. Like the bell itself, which is decorated with images of both Japan and Tennessee, the structure is not purely Japanese in its design — it’s a blend of Japan and Tennessee. Architect Jon Coddington designed the bell house to incorporate elements of traditional temples in Japan and traditional cantilever barns in Tennessee. The blend of Tennessee with Japan in the structure’s design emphasized the bell as a symbol of international friendship — and the design was an important element of the campaign to dispel fears of local residents who saw the bell as a Buddhist religious item or as some sort of “apology” to Japan for Oak Ridge’s role in the Hiroshima bombing. I hope that the original structure can be reassembled around (and disguise) a rugged steel frame that can support the bell for many decades to come.

This is an “interesting” issue for city government. The bell was cast and the structure was built with private donations (here and in Japan), and it was placed on public land as a gift to the city. That makes it a city responsibility now, although the original donors still have a strong sense of ownership. I didn’t donate to the bell when it was created (I was a lot younger then and hadn’t lived in Oak Ridge very long — and this was a project of an older generation of Oak Ridgers), but I will happily donate now to the structure’s restoration because I appreciate the bell’s meaning and value. The bell housing can’t be restored without the help of local donors, but it may not be necessary to find donors to cover the whole cost. I was pleased to see that city government and some citizens with a particular interest in the bell have been creative in seeking additional funds and have discovered a grant-making foundation that looks like an excellent prospect for assisting our community with restoring the bell. The Japanese World Exposition 1970 Commemorative Fund awards matching grants for projects around the world that are related to Japan and that promote international mutual understanding. At Monday evening’s City Council meeting it was reported that it probably is too late to apply for this year’s round of grants, but Oak Ridge should be an excellent candidate for a grant next year.

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Another chance to get rid of hazardous household items

nicadbatteryPeople who have been waiting to safely dispose of hazardous household items have a second chance this year. Anderson County Solid Waste Management is holding a  Household Hazardous Waste Collection on Saturday, September 27, 2014, 9 am to 2 pm, at the Oak Ridge Public Works building at 100 Woodbury Lane (behind the K-Mart shopping center).

According to the announcement, Household Hazardous Waste is anything generated in the household that has a hazardous property. A material is hazardous if it is flammable, corrosive, toxic, or reactive with heat or contact with metals.

What’s accepted:

      HOUSEHOLD: CLEANERS, DRAIN OPENERS, POLISHERS, DISINFECTANTS. HOME IMPROVEMENT / MAINTENANCE: ADHESIVES, STRIPPERS, THINNERS, REMOVERS.

HOME LAWN AND GARDEN:HERBICIDES, PESTICIDES, POISONS, FUNGICIDES, WOOD PRESERVATIVES

AUTOMOTIVE FLUIDS: OIL ADDITIVES & FUEL ADDITIVES, STARTER FLUIDS, SOLVENTS, CLEANERS, REFRIGERANTS, ANTIFREEZE*/COOLANTS, FUEL

MISCELLANEOUS: RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES*, LITHIUM BATTERIES, BUTTON BATTERIES, POOL CHEMICALS, CHEMICALS FROM CHEMISTRY SETS, MEDICINES / DRUGS, AEROSOLS / COMPRESSED GAS, PHOTO PROCESSING CHEMICALS

What not to bring:

    PAINT*, ELECTRONICS*, ALKALINE BATTERIES (they no longer have mercury, so they can go in the regular trash), INFECTIOUS WASTE, EXPLOSIVES / AMMUNITION, RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS (including smoke detectors), EMPTY CONTAINERS, AUTOMOTIVE OIL*, LEAD ACID BATTERIES*

Note: Items marked with asterisks(*) are accepted on a year-round basis at Anderson County’s Blockhouse Valley Road facility.

Don’t show up with commercial or agribusiness waste. However, Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators are eligible to participate by appointment. Contact Clean Harbors Environmental Services at 615-643-3180 with a waste inventory to request a price quote and schedule an appointment.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CALL:
ANDERSON COUNTY SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT
(865) 463-6845

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Clark Center Park

CarbideparkpicnicareaThe future of Carbide Park (officially Clark Center Recreation Area) is on the city agenda right now.

It’s clear why DOE wants to get out of the business of running a community park, and it makes sense that they are offering it to the city of Oak Ridge. It’s a wonderful public recreation resource — 80 acres on Melton Hill Lake, with boat launches, picnic areas, ball fields, swimming area, fishing pier, and access to the Gallaher Bend Greenway. This is an asset that can’t be allowed to slip away. I believe it needs to remain as a public park — and the city needs to say “yes” to DOE. Trouble is that the city will face the same issues of cost and liability that DOE wants to avoid. There’s no room in our city budget to take on new obligations.

When I spoke at the August 25 public meeting, I commented that this is a regional asset, not just a local park, so the city should not “go it alone” in running it. The region should help support its operation and maintenance — maybe through user fees or an annual membership (much like the old days, when use was limited to employees of the federal agency and Union Carbide). It’s costly to hire people to collect fees, though, but there may be a way to implement electronic access controls (think EZ-Pass). I also recommended that DOE should share some of the money it will save by giving away the park with the city. A chunk of the $300,000/year that the federal government spends yearly to run the park would help the city take on this new responsibility — and DOE would still be saving money. There were many good ideas presented at the city’s public meeting on the park (a model for how a public meeting should run — an unstructured opportunity where people had an open-ended invitation to make comments). I think we can make this work — but the community will need to recognize that the taxpayers of Oak Ridge can’t be asked to pay the full cost of a quality public recreation resource that benefits the entire region.

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Best wishes to Josh Collins

It looks like it’s time to start congratulating Josh Collins on his retirement — he has announced that he’s retiring on October 1 after almost 30 years leading the Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Department.

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Reason for Thursday elections in Tennessee

The answer to a question that has come up in conversation lately: Why does Tennessee hold its August elections on Thursday? 

It seems that Thursday was specified in the 1796 state constitution — and it’s still in the state constitution. No one knows why that day was chosen.

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