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Senior Citizens

Yes, Oak Ridge does have public transportation!

There were many more buses in Oak Ridge back in the Secret City days than we have today, but the fact that we do have public transportation may be one of the better-kept secrets of 21st-century Oak Ridge.

A friend asked me recently about transportation options for people who no longer drive and want to get around Oak Ridge without feeling dependent on family and friends. Actually, I know of two services supported by public funds, but when I tried to look up the details, I discovered that the information was elusive. Eventually I did assemble the needed information. For the benefit of others who may need the information, here are some details of Oak Ridge’s transit services:

Van Transit. Vans operate in Oak Ridge from 8 am to 4:30 or 5 pm (sources differ), Monday through Saturday, except for major holidays. Anybody can ride. It costs $1.50 per ride ($3 for a round trip). Young children ride for half price. The phone number for the service is (865)482-2785 — you need to call 24 hours in advance to reserve a ride. The service has a website at http://oakridgepublictransit.org, but it isn’t functioning right now.

Taxi coupons. Oak Ridge residents who are over age 55 or have a physician-certified disability can get coupons that provide discounted rides in the local yellow taxis. The coupons cost 75 cents each (sold in books of 12 coupons for $9). One coupon covers the first $3 of your cab fare; you have to pay for any cost over $3. They are sold at the city senior center on Emory Valley Road between 9 am and 4 pm, Monday through Friday. Phone the senior center at (865)425-3999.

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Phew!

Phew! This year’s Secret City Festival was a big success but it’s a relief that it’s over, and a relief that we made it through last evening’s marathon City Council meeting.

We had a long agenda and a long meeting. Kudos to John Huotari for quickly spinning out reports on two of the major business items addressed at the meeting:

1. Mayor Beehan and Mayor pro tem Miller were both re-elected to two-year terms. I supported Beehan (he was elected unanimously) but I was one of the three who voted for David Mosby for the pro-tem position, as I saw him as the better choice to provide leadership for the City Council and the City in the absence of the mayor. Several people contacted me over the weekend and on Monday to urge me to support Miller, citing the help she has given them in getting city staff support with issues related to things like animal control and code enforcement, but that type of constituent service (which any Council member can provide) is not what I see as needed in a mayor pro-tem.

2. We delayed action on the proposed lease for the senior center to allow more time for senior services advocates to put together a funding package to allow acquisition of the former Trinity Methodist Church for use as a senior center. I’m very pleased at this result (which came on another 4-3 vote), and I hope that the senior advocates can pull it off. (This deserves its own blog post.)

In some of our other business, Council approved new one-year lobbying contracts — with Bill Nolan Associates to represent the city in Nashville and with Ferguson Group for representation at the federal level. I opposed both. One reason is because I was irritated that Council members had been uninformed about what the lobbyists were doing for the city over the 6-month contract until the 11th hour before this meeting. (OK, 3 pm Monday wasn’t the very last hour before the 7 pm Monday meeting, but there was very little margin…) I hope for better communications in the future. Also, I believe that the benefits we get from the federal lobbyist could be provided at less cost by other mechanisms (such as a combination of “Washington insider” newsletters to provide current information on issues and opportunities, plus grad student interns here in Oak Ridge to do legislative research, “legwork” on grant applications, and drafting of letters and discussion points for officials to use).

Also, we received a letter from TDOT’s Gerald Nicely regarding options for the next phase of the widening of State Route 95. The exciting part is that TDOT says that a redesign changing the “typical section” from a 48-ft depressed grass median to a 12-ft paved median (this is being called “Alternative 2″ — basically, this is the change from a “rural design” to an “urban design” that some of us had been asking for) could be accomplished without delaying the September 2009 bid opening, but the City would have to compensate TDOT for any additional costs of construction. Other alternatives include a total shift of the road alignment away from the current right-of-way (this is being called Alternative 1 and is favored by some Southwood subdivision residents, but it’s impractical, and would result in a long delay in the highway project) or (in what’s being called Alternative 3) making small modifications to the “rural” design to reduce its impact (steeper slopes, modified ditches, and guardrails to reduce encroachment on the neighborhood and avoid some loss of vegetation, and lower speed limit to address noise and safety concerns). I think the new “urban” option is the right direction to go — I’m delighted that TDOT is revisiting its plan and proposing what I think is a “context sensitive” solution for this highway segment. City Council probably will have a work session to discuss the proposal on Monday July 6, followed by a special meeting to act on it on Monday July 13.

Added June 24: I forgot to say that City Council approved on first reading (second reading will be July 20th) an ordinance to change the speed limit from 55 to 45 mph on the stretch of Hwy. 95 that passes the Southwood subdivision. The lower speed limit would apply all the way west to a point 200 ft west of the western entrance to the Rarity Oaks subdivision. Among other things, a lower speed limit should improve safety near the subdivision and reduce noise for residents.

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Senior citizen drivers may not be more dangerous, after all

Good news for families or communities with older drivers — and good news for all of us who expect to get older. It seems that the higher rate of auto accident fatalities for older drivers is not because they are bad drivers, but because they are more frail. This suggests that the number of senior citizens who continue driving past the time that they should quit is smaller than we often hear (or fear).

I’d still feel better if Tennessee required testing (especially of vision) for driver’s license renewals of people over a certain age, and I’d like for Oak Ridge seniors to have more transportation options to make it easier for them to turn in their car keys, but it’s good to know that senior drivers aren’t the “hazard on wheels” that they are sometimes suggested to be.

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The senior center shuffle

The long-simmering senior center issue moved to the front burner in recent weeks. City Council members have heard plenty about the topic from senior center users who are vehement in stating the need for a new center, and we’ve heard backlash from other citizens who perceive the senior center supporters to be a whiny special interest. I’ve commented on the topic in public meetings of the City Council, but I’m overdue in attempting to explain my current views and recent actions here.

Past statements. Elsewhere on this website (specifically, in this series of comments from 2004 and 2005 and in this issue statement from 2007) I documented some of my perspectives on the matter of Oak Ridge’s senior center. In a nutshell, what I said was that the new senior center promised nearly a decade ago continues to get delayed and is not likely to become a reality soon; the current location at the Emory Valley Center is an inferior facility and lacks a central location; and that Oak Ridge’s seniors and the City’s leadership need to do some new creative thinking about how to best serve our large senior population – with or without a new building.

Something I didn’t emphasize in those earlier statements is that the primary purpose of the senior enrichment center is social service. The center is a key part of a support system for people who are “aging in place” in our community. One service of the senior center is the senior nutrition program, providing both “meals on wheels” for the homebound and a daily hot meal at the center for those who can get there to enjoy it. Also, the center provides information and other resources for health maintenance, avoiding scams, and other matters of particular interest to the senior population. Recreational programs offered at the center are not just cheap entertainment for people over a certain age, but are intended to help prevent social isolation (for example, of persons who are living alone after the loss of a spouse) and to induce people to take advantage of services that they may need. Government-supported senior centers with similar programs are operated all over the United States, and are generally recognized to be a vital part of a quality community. Some people have told me “I’m a senior citizen and I don’t use that center, you should shut it down.” Those people have a valid perspective, but the fact that they personally do not have a need for the services of the senior center (possibly because they enjoy better health and more financial resources than those who use the center) does not prove that the center does not address a real need.

Recent developments. Since I wrote those earlier statements, we’ve had some creative thinking on the subject of the senior center. Users of the senior center got louder in their complaints about the need for a new facility, there were indications that the center might be evicted from the Emory Valley Center (which still is an inferior facility), and in the fall of 2007 the City Council asked the Elder Citizens Advisory Board (not all of whose members are senior citizens) to make recommendations on a facility that could meet the center’s programmatic needs. Meanwhile, Roane State Community College proposed that the City should donate $1 million toward a campus expansion, and in exchange seniors could use space in the community college facilities.

ECAB recommendations. The Elder Citizens Advisory Board (ECAB) provided an informative report on the facility requirements for an effective senior enrichment center, and (in cooperation with city staff) identified a facility that could meet those needs for roughly half the cost of a new building. The now-vacant Trinity United Methodist Church building has more than enough space (19,000 square feet) for the senior center’s programmatic needs, has rooms in appropriate sizes and shapes, has a kitchen suitable for use by the nutrition program, is in excellent physical condition (it was recently renovated), is in a more central location (the Robertsville Road-Jefferson Ave intersection) than Emory Valley Center, has adequate parking, and is not currently on the tax rolls. It is for sale at a price around $1.2 million. ECAB members judged that the senior program could move in without renovations, but staff and architecture/engineering consultants estimated a renovation cost as high as almost $1 million (of which only some $300,000 to $500,000 is considered “necessary”). If the rent that the city now pays for the Emory Valley Center space were instead applied to a mortgage on this building, it would cover most of the purchase price. Purchase of the Trinity property would provide a long-term solution to the “senior center problem” at far less cost than a new facility — and I think it would provide a facility that we all would be proud of. Although the senior center’s programs would continue to be “just for seniors,” the facility could (like the senior center) be used for other city purposes.

There were good reasons for rejecting other options:

*The Roane State proposal was totally unacceptable. Not only did it offer far less space than the senior center now has at Emory Valley Center (which is in turn less than the ECAB judged necessary), but some space would be available only for part of the day, most of the recreational activities offered at the senior center would be impossible, and seniors would need to compete with students for parking, then find their way from one corner of the building to another to move between activities.

*The former Paragon fitness center building has some attractive features, but its total cost (including renovation) would be far higher than for Trinity, and for less space. Parking also could be a problem.

Back to Emory Valley Center. After City Council received the ECAB recommendation, city staff reviewed the options and came back with a surprising recommendation. They estimated that operating a senior center at Trinity would not only require capital expenditures but would significantly increase operating costs for the senior center (for example, it would require an additional staff person to run the program, and the city would need to assume some maintenance costs that it does not face at Emory Valley Center). Meanwhile, they said that Emory Valley Center is available for at least 5 more years, that the departure of another EVC tenant will improve the situation for seniors, and that air conditioning could be added to the gym there to make it suitable for dancing and other senior activities.

The staff’s Emory Valley Center proposal is clearly the lowest-cost option for the near term. Although the facility is inferior, it is not totally unacceptable, and it appears that it may be possible to negotiate improvements under the lease agreement. Looking ahead, though, I wonder if Emory Valley Center will not look like such a low-cost choice a few years in the future when the senior center is evicted from that building, Trinity is no longer on the market, and the price of new construction is even higher than it is today.

At our August meeting, Council accepted staff’s recommendation and instructed staff to negotiate with Anderson County for a renewed lease at Emory Valley Center, but we did not do so enthusiastically. Three of us (Hensley, Mosby, and I) tried to defer action in order to buy time to find financial support to reduce Trinity’s cost to the city (outside money may exist), and one member voted against the final action.

We can hope that something creative will happen before we have to vote on a new lease contract for Emory Valley Center, but I’m afraid Oak Ridge will continue dancing this senior center shuffle for a good long time to come.

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Injustice for Oak Ridge retirees — and the whole community

Time passes, and retirees from DOE’s Oak Ridge facilities continue to watch their buying power erode, with no hint that they will ever see another pension increase.

This whole community is hurting as a result, since the people who are being denied an increase are solid citizens who are now less likely to be able to purchase goods in local stores, invest in upkeep of their homes, or otherwise contribute to the local economy.

In a recent column in the Knoxville News Sentinel, Dub Shults (a retired scientist who served as a division director at ORNL) compiled some of the facts:

He is better off than many. He says: “I retired at the end of 1994 after 43 years of company service. Since that time, my pension has increased by 4.3 percent while the cost of living has increased by 41.2 percent.  All things being considered, my purchasing power today is 65 percent of what it was when I retired in 1994.”

“The [retirees’] request is for an increase in the pension of each retiree, effectively restoring approximately 75 percent of the purchasing power that each retiree has lost during retirement.”

If pensions were adjusted, “Anderson and Roane counties would accrue 51 percent of the financial benefits of the requested adjustment in pensions… In terms of dollars, the adjustment would bring approximately $65 million in increased pensions into our area.”

“Sufficient funds exist in trust to cover the expense of the requested pension adjustment without additional funding and without jeopardizing the liabilities of the pension program. Indeed, the trust is over-funded to such an extent that payments into it were stopped in 1984.”

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Retirees deserve better

A recurrent topic of discussion in Oak Ridge is the economy — and what should or could be done to improve local tax revenues.

There are plenty of ideas, of course, but it seems to me that the single most positive thing that could and should be done is to gain fairer treatment for the retirees of the contractors that operate the local Department of Energy (originally Atomic Energy Commission) facilities.

People who devoted their working lives to the local atomic energy facilities during the Cold War (and their surviving spouses) have been watching the purchasing power of their pensions dwindle away. Meanwhile, the pension fund that pays them enjoys a huge surplus (the balance is $800 million more than the actuaries say is needed to pay all current and future obligations to past and future retirees) and their former employers have not paid one cent into the pension fund since 1984, but Department of Energy officials have said publicly that it would be irresponsible to increase Oak Ridge retirees’ pensions to compensate for inflation.

Retirees aren’t asking for much — they only want their pensions increased to provide 75% of the buying power they retired with, and to make the “surviving spouse” pension arrangement for past retirees the same as it is for future retirees. As the retirees have been eloquently (and patiently) pointing out in various public forums (for example, in this Oak Ridger guest column that Joanne Gailar wrote last year), these changes would restore a modicum of fairness and would provide a windfall for individual retirees — and the communities where they live.

Our Oak Ridge contractor retirees must be treated better. Although it ought to be in DOE’s and the contractors’ best interest to do so (who would want to be recruited to work for an organization that treats its pensioners so poorly?), it appears that a political resolution is necessary.

I hope something happens soon — for our local retirees and for the local economy. The matter appears under “other issues” on the City’s State and Federal Legislative Agenda for 2007, but I think it might be the single most important federal issue for Oak Ridge right now. (What does the rest of the community think?)

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