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Oak Ridge Issues

Liquor licensees — changing the rules in the middle of the game?

citysealAt tonight’s City Council meeting some rules got changed in the middle of the game.  That was unsportsmanlike — and it was not business-friendly.

Oak Ridge has an ordinance (dating back nearly 50 years) requiring that owners and operators of retail liquor establishments (liquor stores) must be city residents, unless Council votes to waive the requirement. And Council has routinely waived that residency requirement for everyone who requests a waiver. I’m not aware that anyone was ever denied a waiver — and very few liquor sellers actually live in the city.

Since we don’t require owners of any other type of business to live in the city and since the residency requirement hasn’t been enforced, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it on the books. It’s just one of several antiquated ordinances related to liquor that need to be updated (a topic I’ve discussed with legal staff). But we have to live with it for now.

Tonight Council considered a request for a residency waiver and a “certificate of good moral character” from two young men (I think they are brothers) who purchased a long-operating local liquor store and needed city council approval in order to get a state license. All the usual checking of police records, etc., had been done to verify that they met the legal requirements for “good moral character,”  and one of the young men even told us that they used to live in Oak Ridge and hoped to move back here (from Knox County) after getting into business here.

I expected they would receive the approvals that are routinely granted to liquor license applicants, but it didn’t happen. One Council member said he wanted to support local small business, and he wasn’t sure he likes  the residency requirement, but he would vote against a waiver because he didn’t like the idea of waiving the residency requirement. He said he understood that it had been waived in the past, but he had never voted for a waiver and he didn’t want to start now. Another Council member apparently agreed with him and voted not to grant the waiver. Two “no” votes was enough to defeat the resolution because it needed 4 votes to pass, and there were only 5 Council members voting (Councilwoman Trina Baughn was absent and Mayor Warren Gooch had recused himself due to a possible conflict of interest).

So Council changed the rules in the middle of the game for these young men. And contrary to that Councilman’s recollection, he had voted for waivers previously. As recently as March of this year, he voted “yes” when 6 members of Council voted to waive the residency requirement for 7 applicants for new or renewed licenses. (It’s recorded in the minutes of that meeting.)

So two young men who invested in a local small business and were eager to get started are being told “no” because of Council members who decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. In my book, that’s arbitrary regulation — the exact opposite of “being business-friendly.” I hope that this action doesn’t lead to the closure of the store these young men bought.

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Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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Not for sale

citysealIt’s rumor control time: The Oak Ridge City Council is not planning to sell the public library or the outdoor swimming pool, and we are not voting next Monday on either of these ideas.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a little factual information related to this rumor.

  1. City Council meets Monday, July 27, 7 pm in the municipal courtroom to enact a city budget for Fiscal Year 2016, which started on July 1. (This is an important meeting.)
  2. At a Council work session earlier this week, the city manager told City Council that he would like to look into the possibility of hiring a private contractor to manage our public library. This has been done in some communities and reportedly has significantly reduced operating costs, mainly by changing the way new library materials are prepared to be added to the collection. According to the city manager, a contractor that serves many libraries can more efficiently label and catalog new materials, add protective covers, etc., thus greatly reducing “back room” costs — and possibly freeing up some “back room” space in our library for more interesting uses.
  3. The city manager also said that contracting might be a good option for increasing efficiency in operation of the indoor and outdoor swimming pool facilities.
  4. City Council members encouraged the manager to look into these possibilities. No decisions have been made and no vote has been scheduled.
  5. The city manager’s proposed FY16 budget provides full funding for the library and swimming pools as they are currently operated.

As for my opinion on these proposals… I am pleased that the manager is looking into opportunities to improve the efficiency of city government operations. A number of different functions of city government probably could be performed more efficiently by specialized contractors that do the same work for many communities. Contractors may be able to give Oak Ridge the benefit of their experience in other place and they may be able to obtain more competitive pricing and other efficiencies in procurement of products and services. Local government purchasing cooperatives are another option that some communities are using to reduce operating costs — and that our city should explore.

However, there are serious concerns in a contracting arrangement. For starters, local control and autonomy should not be sacrificed, and any cost savings achieved should not come from reducing employee pay or benefits (for both current and future employees).  The city manager says that this has not happened in the places that have brought in library contractors. I’m skeptical, but I’m interested in learning more…

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Both Jackson Square and downtown are important

I commented in a conversation on Facebook that I believe is worth sharing here. A local person started the conversation with a question (edited for brevity):

I was just looking over the updated plans for the next phase of the Jackson Square renovation. The parking lot will be completely rebuilt, and the latest drawings show a splash pad system to be installed in a center courtyard area. My thoughts are about the on-going Mall talks, and how we want to attract more retail to the area, yet in Jackson Square there are empty store locations, a few spots that desperately need work…

So my question to everyone is what do we call downtown? To me, the old Jackson square is technically downtown Oak Ridge, not the Mall, but most of the newer development is around the mall. Does Oak Ridge have an overall development plan for the future? Why work so hard on Jackson Square and then put all of the focus on the Mall rebuild? The mall conversion is basically a design patterned after what Jackson Square already is when you think about it. Could we attract additional construction near Jackson Square to expand the experience there?

Several others commented on bygone days at Jackson Square and the mall site, and another person asked “When is the second part of the renovation suppose to begin?”

Farmer's Market at Jackson Square

The Farmer’s Market at Jackson Square can help define it as a village center.

My response:
As long-time Oak Ridgers know, the mall site used to be the “Downtown Shopping Center.” The location was designated to be the city’s commercial center as part of a master plan during the days of federal government ownership of the city. It’s still a logical location for major retail businesses.

In contrast, Jackson Square is currently envisioned as something more like a village center — a neighborhood where residents and visitors can walk between their homes, shops, eateries, offices, churches, entertainment venues, the Roane State campus, the Alexander Inn (soon to be a senior living facility), tennis courts, etc. The Jackson Square neighborhood has “good bones” — the potential to become one of those trendy in-town neighborhoods that many of us admire in other cities. The Jackson Square renovation is supposed to be a step toward making that vision a reality.

The start of construction at Jackson Square is delayed because the bids came in “too high.”

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Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

Possibly the worst kind of signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

Possibly the worst signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

The last item on the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire was an open-ended question:
Do you have any other issues you would like to address?

My response: I support the city sign ordinance. It helps to maintain the kind of esthetics that I believe people look for in a high-quality community. The visual clutter from competing signs that I see on the streets of some other area communities isn’t good for anybody – it’s ugly, and everyone’s messages get lost in the clutter of many competing signs.

However, I have heard and am sympathetic to the concerns of businesses that lack the visibility they need to help customers find them, the difficulty people have in interpreting the rules about signs, and the impression that certain businesses are allowed to have much better signage than their competitors. I hope that city government and the business community can work together to revamp the sign ordinance so that it allows businesses to have the visibility they need to reach customers, while maintaining esthetics.

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On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

citysealQuestion 5 from the Progress PAC was about City Council relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and “other business developers.”

Question:
What relationship should the city council have with the Chamber of Commerce and other business developers?

My response: City Council should look to organizations like the Chamber of Commerce as good sources of insight and advice on the needs and concerns of the business community, as well as economic development and related matters. Similarly, I hope that organizations like the Chamber – and its individual members – will contact Council members (either individually or as a body) when they want to offer advice or advocate for particular concerns.

I support Mark Watson’s recent changes that ended the close partnership relationship between the City and the Chamber, replacing it with a relationship in which the Chamber is more like a service provider for the City. It appears to me that the Chamber can advocate more effectively for its membership if it isn’t also operating as a quasi-branch of the city government, and I believe that City government should not prefer any one set of businesspeople (in this case, Chamber members) over the business community as a whole. However, I know that the Chamber is often in a unique position to work with city government to perform functions that the city government needs to support, so the two organizations should plan to continue to do business together.

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Chickens again?

Not your grandfather's chicken coopI posted on the Oak Ridge backyard chickens page on Facebook, and might as well repeat it here:

I voted for backyard chickens while I was on City Council.
I see this as one of several examples of new ideas that Oak Ridge needs to embrace in order to meet the needs and expectations of new generations of residents.

Before the early 1990s, I had never heard of greenways, but then I listened to people who supported greenways and got enthusiastically involved in developing Oak Ridge’s original greenways master plan — and I’m pleased with the continuing expansion of our greenways system.

Before about 10 years ago, I had never heard of dog parks (although I now realize I had experience as a dog owner with areas that could have been considered unofficial dog parks), but now it’s important for every community to have dog parks — and fortunately we finally have a good one here.

I guess I first heard about backyard chickens about 7 years ago (and was surprised by the idea at first). I see this as another new idea that Oak Ridge needs to embrace if we want to keep up with the times.

– Click on the “chickens” tag to see my past comments on this topic.

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Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

Building at Kareday ApartmentsQuestion 4 from the Progress PAC is about housing. My responses are below. For blog posting, I’ve inserted a couple of hyperlinks into the plain-text response that I provided to the PAC.

Question: Healthy housing is important to a healthy community. What three specific actions would you take to enhance housing in the city?

Response:

Three actions:

1. We need greater demand for housing in Oak Ridge in order to stimulate investment in housing. The marketing study (and its followup) that I mentioned in response to question 2 is an important step toward building demand for housing in Oak Ridge. Increased investment in existing neighborhoods, particularly in the central part of the city, is particularly important. The plans to redevelop the mall property as “Main Street Oak Ridge” should make a contribution to stimulating demand for homes, particularly in the center of the city.

2. Owners and buyers of existing homes are in need of practical assistance and financial resources so that Oak Ridge homes from the 1940s through the 1970s (the majority of our housing) will have greater appeal to the next generation of homeowners. To help with this, I recently contributed many hours of my time to a cooperative initiative that developed a grant proposal to TVA to obtain funds for “extreme energy makeovers” on about 300 older homes in lower-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge. If the proposal is successful, this program will reduce living costs for some lucky residents (more…)

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Patching relations between Council and schools

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolThe Progress PAC’s third question was about patching the relationship between Oak Ridge City Council and the Oak Ridge Board of Education. My submitted response is below. At the October 1 forum conducted by the PTA-PTO Council, I was pleased to hear several school board candidates make statements that suggest they are thinking along similar lines.

Question 3: The relationship between the Board of Education and City Council has been strained. What is your plan to help build consensus between the two bodies?

My response: The strain in the relationship between the city and the schools has the same cause as many breakdowns within loving families: poor communication about money.

To repair the relationship, we need to establish open, honest, and timely communication about budgets and money. Discussions should not be just between the Board and the Council, but also must involve staff of both organizations –- the people who develop budgets and can explain the details. Ground rules are needed for these communications before they begin. Among these ground rules, I would like to see the Board accept that Council must make decisions that balance between all of the competing priorities for city money (including city operations, schools, capital needs, and the desire to minimize property taxes), and that a full understanding of the “innards” of the school budget (and the reasons for various expenditures) may be necessary to help Council weigh the Board’s funding requests against the other competing priorities. On the other hand, Council needs to agree that it has no authority to direct or interfere with Board decisions on how it spends the school budget or on how the schools are run. Ground rules should also include strong admonitions not to make personal statements critical of other participants – or other remarks that personalize the discussion.

I support the Council’s plan to re-establish a budget and finance committee in which Council members can study and discuss budgetary matters related to the entire city government and the schools. I think that meetings of this committee (which are public meetings) will provide the right setting for the two bodies to begin new conversations about money. Even if all members of both bodies are in attendance, I believe that the setting of a working committee (rather than a formal meeting of the full memberships of both bodies) should help to minimize posturing and grandstanding by individual members of the Board and Council, which has sometimes impeded meaningful communication in the past. Early discussions (starting soon after the November election) are needed, so that neither the Council or the Board will be surprised by the other body at budget time in May and June.

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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. (more…)

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