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Tennessee state issues

YES to household energy efficiency, NO to imposters taking advantage of TVA program

It’s great news for local homeowners that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is promoting home energy efficiency through in-home energy evaluations and rebates for certain kinds of energy improvements. Details are on the TVA website (and there are also tax credits available for work done this year). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of this, according to this message from TVA:

Recently, TVA was informed of a situation in which an individual falsely posed as a TVA energy evaluator with the In Home Energy Evaluation (IHEE) program pilot. The imposter gained access to the customer’s home but did no harm. In efforts to prevent this situation going forward, we are asking you notify your customers of this situation and communicate to them that TVA-certified evaluators will not visit homes without pre-scheduling evaluations. TVA is adding the following language to all versions of the IHEE fact sheet as well as the TVA website.

In-home evaluations are scheduled in advance at the request of a homeowner and performed by TVA-certified evaluators. Residents should report any uninvited persons claiming to represent TVA or the local power company to local authorities immediately.

Please share this information with your customers as soon as possible. If you have any questions or need my assistance, please let me know. Thank you for your continued participation and support.

Tom Irwin
Senior Power Utilization Engineer
TVA Comprehensive Services

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Governor Bredesen’s education initiative

E-mail from State Representative Jim Hackworth’s office urged me to read the proposals that Governor Bredesen presented to the General Assembly yesterday (here’s the press release) and give him my views. Education is not one of the topics I typically contact my legislators about, but the governor’s proposal to transform the state’s education system has gotten my attention, so I wrote to Rep. Hackworth about a couple aspects of the proposal:

The state’s education system is embarrassingly poor — and it’s in everyone’s interest to improve it. (Not only does it limit the next generation’s horizons as individuals, but it hurts the whole state economically.)

Tennessee’s kids aren’t stupid, but too many of them are not learning effectively. I think that a large part of the problem is that our citizens as a whole do not place high enough value on education. A new government program can’t overcome that attitude problem “overnight” (or even in 5 years). However, measures to reward teachers for their effectiveness in helping kids learn (regardless of where the kids are educationally when they arrive in the classroom) seem promising as a way to increase the effectiveness of our education system. Go for it!

Additionally, I share the governor’s view that our state colleges and universities are letting bureaucratic jealousies get in the way of educating our young adults effectively. If his plan forces them to coordinate and collaborate, it’s worth a try.

People will get hung up on many of the details of implementing these transformational initiatives (and there’s good reason to get hung up on some of those details), but it makes sense to commit to these major policy changes quickly (to qualify for the federal incentive) and hassle the details later.

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DOE radwaste to Tennessee landfills – next chapter

It turns out that DOE’s conference call (see previous post) was not really an “initial public outreach activity” (other than the fact that it was their first public outreach on this topic), but rather was a belated damage-control job: the Department wanted to see whether it would be a bad idea to follow through with a contract they had already signed.

According to an article in Weapons Complex Monitor, the day after the conference call, DOE canceled a contract with Toxco Inc. Toxco has filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement of this contract, which DOE entered into earlier this year, under which Toxco’s Oak Ridge unit was going to do clean-up work at a DOE site in upstate New York, including disposing of some contaminated soil in a Tennessee municipal landfill. Use of a Tennessee municipal landfill instead of a licensed low-level radioactive waste facility was going to save DOE $750 thousand. The reported value of the contract with Toxco was more than $1.1 million, so I’m guessing that the total cost of the project with another company that would send all of the waste to a radwaste site is almost $1.9 million. This represented huge savings for DOE, and Weapons Complex Monitor says that in July DOE officials had signed off on the plan to put the waste in a Tennessee landfill.

With this background, I still congratulate DOE for having the good sense to drop the idea, but hearing the rest of the story gives me a lot of concern. The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) policy that allows low concentrations of radioactive contamination in some state municipal landfills is well-intentioned but ill-advised. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea technically — radioactivity is naturally present in the environment, and this is material (“contaminated” because radioactivity has been added to it) that may be no more radioactive (or even less radioactive) than some natural soil. Also, TDEC requires a risk assessment of each waste stream that is allowed to go to a landfill under its “bulk survey for release” rules.

The problem is that federal law does not allow for “de minimis” radioactive waste to be managed except in rad-licensed facilities (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tried to change it more than 2 decades ago, but dropped the idea after they ran into severe political opposition), and no other state permits this (as far as I know). As a result, it appears that Tennessee is the destination of choice for some rad waste — this is cheap and easy place to dispose of lightly contaminated material. Some local businesses are profiting because they serve as middlemen in the transactions between waste generators and Tennessee landfills, but I don’t think that’s the kind of business model that this community wants to promote. Although it looks like Toxco’s contract included some other technical work on the site cleanup (and I’m sorry that they lost that work), in general I believe that the only economic benefit to Oak Ridge from these waste-to-landfill transactions is that they help a company’s balance sheet — there’s no local tax revenue, and this business probably damages the city’s reputation. Furthermore, I assume that Tennessee citizens who have tolerated landfills in their “backyards” do so because area citizens and businesses need to get rid of their garbage, not so that Tennessee can take waste from the rest of the country (and possibly the world).

If there is technical merit in allowing lightly contaminated radwaste into landfills, let’s change the disposal policy at the national level. One state should not be doing this unilaterally. There certainly would be economic benefits to changing that policy, but if DOE and industry can quietly send their waste to Tennessee, where’s their incentive to lobby for change at the national level?

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Guns in parks

The issue of guns in municipal parks has aroused a lot of emotion and is generating a lot of e-mail to City Council members. On one side are people are strong proponents of gun rights and residents who believe that having a concealed gun when they are in a public place helps to ensure their safety. On the other side are people who believe that introducing guns into public parks is a threat to public safety. Among the people I’ve heard from are friends with strong views on both sides of this issue.

Following is text from a message that I have been sending to people who’ve e-mailed me on this topic:

The matter of guns in parks is on the agenda for the next City Council
meeting next Monday, July 20.

Guns are currently not permitted in our city parks. A new state law that
allows people with handgun carry permit holders to carry their guns in
public parks will take effect September 1, 2009, and will apply in Oak Ridge
city parks unless the City Council decides by resolution to “opt out.”

The “opt-out” resolution that City Council will consider next Monday
would maintain the existing ban on guns in our parks, with exceptions
for law enforcement officers, hunters in an authorized hunt (we do have
them in some city areas), World War II re-enactors at Secret City, and
similar exceptions. It would apply to all parks, natural areas,
greenways, and similar properties owned or operated by the city. (Guns
will continue to be banned on school property regardless of what we do.)

I intend to support the opt-out resolution to continue the ban on guns
in our city parks. As I see it, this restriction is not related to a
citizen’s right to bear arms, but rather is a reasonable restriction to
ensure public safety and allow citizens to feel secure when they use the
city’s public playgrounds, parks, greenways, and other areas.

Added: A recent News Sentinel article helps explain why it is that police officers and recreation managers in Tennessee — and many Oak Ridge citizens — prefer not to allow handguns in city parks, even in the hands of permittees.  A man with a handgun permit who “did not seem to be mentally stable” (according to a Knoxville Police) fired his handgun in a greenway area near where children were playing.  Fortunately, no one was hurt. Charges against the shooter  included  impersonating a law enforcement officer and reckless endangerment, and his handgun permit was suspended “and will be revoked if he is convicted.”  It’s unfortunate but true that the fact that someone passed a background check and went through firearms training is no guarantee of that person’s future mental stability and responsible handling of firearms.  Yes, he was already violating state law by taking his gun into a public park, but the fact that some people violate laws is not a reason for eliminating those laws.  I believe that telling people like him that it’s OK to take their guns into parks increases the chances for gun violence in parks — it certainly does not make people safer.

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Oak Ridge and the downside of derivatives trading

After headlines earlier this year about Tennessee local governments suffering losses after getting involved in interest rate swaps for their municipal bonds (see New York Times on April 8 and April 10, the Associated Press on April 8, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Chattanooga Times-Free Press on April 10 ) people are talking about which other cities and counties are affected and “can it happen here?”  The media have reported that Tennessee municipalities were “educated” about this form of derivatives by means of state-authorized gobbledygook that did not effectively inform them.  Blame for the situation was directed at Morgan Keegan and its First Cumberland Securities subsidiary (municipal bond underwriters),  and Bass, Berry and Sims (law firm acting as municipal bond counsel), which conducted the state’s education programs on municipal derivatives, advised local governments, and brokered the deals that got local governments involved with the derivatives market. News reports name Claiborne County and the municipalities of Lewisburg and Mt. Juliet as local governments that got hit with hefty bills when their derivatives involvement went sour.

City Council members have learned that Oak Ridge is exposed to the derivatives market, so “it can happen here,” but staff expresses confidence that we will be OK. Knox County and Blount County governments have made similar assurances.

The Daily Times of Maryville reported that the City of Oak Ridge was approved to issue $91 million in derivatives and the Oak Ridge Utility District (the natural gas utility) another $4 million. The City’s actual current exposure is less than that — a bit  less than $26 million of City borrowing is covered by “interest rate swaps.”

As I now understand it (and I probably don’t understand everything correctly), with “interest rate swaps” the city issued bonds with a renegotiable variable rate (subject to the market), but also signed a deal with a bank to guarantee that the city would pay a predictable rate of interest for the entire term of the bonds. If the market rate of interest was higher than the range specified in the contract, the bank would pay the extra interest for us. Also, if the interest rate fell below the guaranteed rate range, the city would continue to pay the higher interest and the bank would pocket the difference between our payments and the amount currently due on the bonds.

An interest rate swap deal ensures predictability in loan payments as long as the bank is a solid financial partner that can hold up its side of the contract. Last year, however, chaos hit the financial system and a lot of banks no longer looked so solid. Although the City of Oak Ridge was still a good credit risk, our variable-rate bonds were “wrapped up” in the securities of the bank that had issued the interest-rate swaps, and that bank was suddenly no longer considered a good credit risk. As a result, it might have been difficult to get investors to buy the city’s bonds for the next variable-rate period. At the same time, if the city had tried to cancel the interest-rate swaps, we would have had to pay a big premium to buy them back — because the current low interest rates made them a valuable investment for the bank that holds them.

Oak Ridge has avoided crisis by finding another bank (in Belgium, of all places!) to provide a letter of credit (at a cost of 0.9% interest) to make our variable-rate bonds marketable again. Our good credit rating helped us escape the dilemmas that some Tennessee local governments faced when they discovered that their bonds were being treated as “junk,” even though the bond issuer was solvent. I feel like we “dodged a bullet” this time, but I see this is a lesson on why elected officials like me need to dig for information and try to fully understand whatever we are being asked to approve — and what we might be getting ourselves into.

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Corrections and update on next phase of Hwy 95 widening

There’s some favorable news on the turnpike widening project.

City Council members learned last evening that the project was not included as a stimulus project, but is instead expected to be funded in TDOT’s FY 2010 work plan. That reduces the urgency a bit and gives TDOT a chance to improve the design.

Also, Southwood residents who spoke at the City Council meeting got the Council’s and staff’s attention, and I expect that things will be  done to determine the extent of the impacts on that subdivision and look for ways to mitigate the effects.

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The next phase of the Turnpike (Hwy 95) widening

People are griping (for example, on the new Sustain Oak Ridge Google group) about the Hwy 95 widening projects (the ongoing one from Illinois Ave. to Westover Drive and the next phase from Westover Drive to the Hwy 58 interchange).  These are not City of Oak Ridge projects, but are Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects (when complaining about public issues, it’s useful to know which unit of government you have an issue with), and it’s clear that the city has little influence over the way TDOT designs and builds its road projects. However, there has been strong city support for completing both of these projects, as they have been on the books for a very long time and they will not only eliminate some hazards but will also result in extending new utility lines (such as water mains) to the west end of the city, including Rarity Oaks, K-25, and Rarity Ridge.

One thing I’m concerned right now is the design for the next phase. This is a high-priority “shovel-ready” economic stimulus project, based on TDOT design work that was completed 9 years ago, so work  is slated to start soon.  TDOT’s design for this segment calls for a 48-foot wide median and a wide cleared right of way adjacent to both sides of the highway, and extensive cutting and filling to create an elevated roadway — think of an Interstate highway or the Pellissippi Parkway to imagine what is being planned. The grassed median alone will be wider than the entire current roadway. There will be no more trees to buffer between the Southwood subdivision and the highway or between the cleared properties in the Horizon Center and the highway (someone I know said “all trees that you can see from the road will be gone”) and the brick entryway to the Westwood subdivision probably will be removed.

If people don’t like this (or other details, such as the bike lane on the shoulder), public officials (both city and state) need to hear from you. They’ve heard from me asking for the design to be scaled back (apparently I was the only one to write a letter to TDOT after the public hearing on the design back in 2000,  and I’ve communicated more recently to TDOT as a City Council member) and a few others, and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) recommended that City Council encourage TDOT to change their design from a “rural” to an “urban” design, but it appears to me that we critics are not being taken seriously.  If others agree with us, they need to speak up. (Opportunties to speak to Council include “appearance of citizens” at tonight’s Council meeting at 7 pm and the City Council Night Out at the Civic Center Tuesday evening from 6 to 8 pm.)

Here is some “material” on the subject, starting with the “guts” of a message I sent to TDOT’s regional manager in March of this year:

The principal concern that I have (and that I have heard from other residents) is that the overall width of the proposed design, including a 48-ft median and very wide clear zone on both sides of the travel surface, does not appear to be necessary (it greatly exceeds what exists on the higher-traffic segment of Hwy 58 west of the interchange) and will result in excessive environmental impacts, unnecessary construction and maintenance costs, and long-term detriment to efforts to maintain a “human-scale” community design that fosters pedestrian travel and community cohesion.

Environmental impact concerns include:
(1) loss of forest, riparian areas, and probably wetlands in the corridor
(2) noise impacts in residential areas adjacent to the corridor that are currently buffered from the roadway by vegetation that would be lost
(3) increased impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat in East Fork Poplar Creek due to reduction of vegetative buffer, loss of shade, and increased stormwater runoff
(4) possible impacts to flood storage and routing in East Fork Poplar Creek
(5) loss of aesthetic qualities.

From a cost perspective, I think it is clear that a wider swath increases the costs of both construction and ongoing maintenance. Reducing the width of this project to make it no wider than the segments immediately to the east and west (that is, the Hwy 95 segment currently under construction and the Hwy 58 segment from the Hwy 95 interchange west to the Clinch River) should free up some funds for other uses, both now and in the future.

There has also been community concern about potential impacts to the “checking station” structures (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) on either side of the roadway west of Westover Lane and to the nearby cemetery, but I understand that these features would be protected under TDOT’s design. Additionally, I told you that residents of the Westwood subdivision (entered at Wisconsin Avenue) are concerned that the project would require removal of the brick “gate” structures at the entrance to the subdivision, and you explained that this is unavoidable.

I recognize that funding priority for this project depends on the availability of an existing design, but I also know that even a “final” design often requires many changes, and that it is far less costly and time consuming to change an engineering design than it is to modify a road once it has been built. I believe that the requested modifications to reduce overall project width could be made within the context of the overall design (and thus without jeopardizing the overall project package). Additionally, I find it frustrating that I and other citizens registered these same concerns (orally and in writing) when a public meeting was held on this project about 8 years ago, but we did not receive responses to our expressions of concern — and the design remained essentially unchanged. I hope that changes can be made now to improve this project while reducing its costs.

* Here’s the text of TDOT’s April 8th reply to me:

I forwarded your e-mail to the Department’s Headquarter Design Office for assistance in addressing your concerns regarding the improvement of State Route 95 from State Route 58 to near Westover Drive in Oak Ridge.

As you are aware, a corridor and design public hearing was conducted on September 21, 2000. A review of the public hearing comments was made on December 27, 2000. Information based on the transcript reveals the hearing was attending by twenty-one people with six people making comments to the court reporter, two making written comments and one letter. You provided the letter and a comment to the court reporter.

The project has an approved environmental document. The project is designed in accordance with the Department’s standards and guidelines for a four lane divided facility using the typical sections as proposed in the approved Advance Planning Report. Comments from the public hearing and local government official regarding the addition of bicycle lanes and turn lanes have been incorporated into the present design. The facility will provide a bicycle lane on the roadway shoulders in each direction.

The typical section utilizing the 48 foot median is the normal typical used for a four lane divided facility. The 48 foot median is provided to allow for separation of opposing vehicles and allows sufficient area at median openings for safe vehicle storage making left turns and u-turns. The clear zone for this roadway is normal for this type of facility and utilizes the roadway shoulder for bicycle lanes. The roadway ditch provides for drainage.

The section of State Route 95 from Westover Drive to State Route 62 was designed with a narrower typical section because the area was established more urban and densely developed. The design also avoids the historic guard towers “checking stations” located near Westover Drive.

The Department strives to meet local concerns in the design of roadway projects while following the standards and guidelines established for safety of the motoring public. As the project progresses into the construction phase, opportunities to
improve safety and enhance aesthetics will always be considered.

* I don’t have an electronic copy of EQAB’s final letter to the City Council, but this draft is pretty close to what the board sent:

EQAB has recently learned that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) will provide funds for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to begin construction of Phase 2 of the State Route 95 Highway Improvement Project. As you may know Phase 2 covers the area from the West Guard Tower near Westover Drive to the SR 95/58 interchange. Members of EQAB reviewed the plans for this project. As a result of our review we would like to share some observations and concerns about this project.

The design for Phase 2 is based on a standard TDOT rural section design. As proposed it will have a cross section similar to an interstate-class highway with two traffic lanes in each direction, wide shoulders to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, and a 48-foot depressed median for drainage. This design will result in clearing as much as 250-350 feet of right-of-way prior to construction. We are concerned that this construction will result in the destruction of a large area of natural habitat . At a time when City Council has tasked EQAB with developing a sustainability plan to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and help Oak Ridge become more environmentally friendly, construction of such a roadway is viewed by our board to be wasteful of natural resources and does not set a very good example of our commitment to a more sustainable future. The cost of such the proposed Phase 2 project is also wasteful of monetary resources at a time when these resources are becoming far more scarce. One reason we believe Phase 2 is wasteful is that Phases 1 and 3, which Phase 2 is sandwiched between, are both significantly more narrow urban sections. A rural section situated between two urban sections has limited benefit to the overall traffic flow patterns in this area.

Between 30-90 additional acres of forest would be needlessly razed to accommodate the rural highway section versus the urban section. At ~$30K per acre for unimproved buildable land in the West End, the value of this lost land, assuming the area abutting the highway does become completely residential, would be between $1 million and $3 million. This would be an absolute loss, since the commercial value of a deep median is essentially zero. If some of the land along the highway became light commercial instead of residential, the lost value could exceed $6 million.

The carbon sequestration value of the lost standing timber would be roughly $120-360K.

The broad shoulders and deep median buy us absolutely nothing, cost the City quite a bit in lost land etc., and cost the State quite a bit more in construction expense as well.

The members of EQAB are of the opinion that the Phase 2 design is incompatible with the City’s land use plans for the west end of Oak Ridge. With the development of Rarity Oaks and Horizon Center this area will not remain rural for very much longer. The build out of Rarity Oaks will ultimately make much of the area adjacent to the south side of the right-of-way residential. Similarly, the planned development at Horizon Center and Parcel ED-6 will bring a mix of commercial, industrial, and various density residential developments to the northern areas. We believe consideration of these factors necessitates an urban design to ensure compatibility with the future use of this area. An urban design would also be more compatible with non-motorized human users (i.e., bicyclists and pedestrians).

The original public meeting for the Phase 2 project was held almost nine years ago in September 2000. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years; unfortunately the design for Phase 2 has not been altered to account for or safely accommodate these changes.

Although we realize this project is being pursued on an accelerated schedule required by the ARRA to secure funding, we believe these concerns warrant a reexamination of the application of a standard design that since it’s first proposal has been superceded by changing conditions on the west end of town. The members of EQAB believe it would be to the benefit of the city, its residents, and future growth to explore the possibility of altering the proposed design to the proven, existing urban design that is more compatible with current conditions in the city.

To accept this project because the money is there to buy an elephant when we only need a horse will not help our community’s effort to establish itself as a sustainable community.

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Candidates, candidates, everywhere

Oak Ridge, we have some candidates this year — candidates for City Council and school board in the June 2, 2009 city election, and possibly even a local candidate for U.S. Congress in fall 2010.

Before talking about the candidates, I must stop and remember the two long-time public servants who decided not to stand for re-election: Councilman Willie Golden and School Board member and chairman John Smith (no relation). Both have dedicated large amounts of time and effort to city affairs, and they will be missed. Willie Golden commands a great deal of personal respect in the community, stemming from his days of high school athletic glory (when he was the first African-American student to captain an Oak Ridge High School varsity team) and his many years running recreation programs as a member of the city staff, extending into his public service in recent years on the City Council and in the Anderson County court system. I’ll miss the wisdom and caring concern he has shown as a member of Council. I’ve not observed John Smith as closely, but I’ve been continually impressed by his constant dedication and conscientious hard work on behalf of our children and our schools. Both he and Willie deserve our gratitude.

Impressively, there are 10 people running for 4 seats on City Council, including 3 incumbents. I attended last Thursday’s Democracy for East Tennessee candidate event to meet the City Council candidates that I didn’t already know, and to hear what the candidates had to say about themselves and the city. It looks to me like this Council election is shaping up as an exciting exercise in grassroots politics — this is a capable collection of candidates who decided to run for a diverse variety of civic-minded reasons. All seem to have the ability to serve effectively, but they differ in their awareness/knowledge of city affairs and issues, personality, life experience, and philosophies on the city’s future. (More later about my personal impressions.)

For school board, voters also have a choice — there are 5 candidates (including two incumbents) for 3 slots. DFET is tentatively planning a school board candidates’ event for May 5th (timing will overlap with the next City Council Night Out) and the League of Women Voters will hold two forums just before early voting begins in mid-May.

With the focus on the local election, I imagine that many missed the news of the possibility of an Oak Ridger reprsenting us in Congress (instead of someone from the Chattanooga end of the district). Georgiana Vines reported in the News Sentinel that Oak Ridge resident Paula Flowers is among the folks actively exploring the possibility of running for Zach Wamp’s Congressional seat in 2010, now that Wamp has announced that he will not seek re-election.  Flowers has experience statewide as the former head of the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, and she impressed a lot of Oak Ridge politics-watchers when she ran for the Oak Ridge Charter Commission last year. I’ve heard speculation about whether she would be running for city office in the future. With that background, I expect there will be a lot of local  support for her if she does run for Congress. Go, Paula!

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Turning off lights isn’t as easy as it looks

Michael Silence has a comment in today’s News Sentinel that (contrary to his intention) helps to underline just how difficult it can be for governments to make meaningful reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. He says that it would be silly for the state to require vending machines on state property to either use energy-efficient lights for advertising or have the advertising lights removed, because he figures that business owners should be removing those lights to save money. It’s not that simple!

I’m pleased and proud to be able to say that the City of Oak Ridge has removed the advertising lighting from vending machines (they kept the lighting that helps people use the machine, but removed the lights that only illuminate a soft drink company’s name) after TVA recommended this as a way to save energy and costs. TVA said the city could save $95 annually per machine. I figure it’s just $80 at current rates, but it’s not small change.

It’s not that simple to cut these lights everywhere though, because the owner of the vending machine usually doesn’t pay the electric bill for the power that lights the machine. When I suggested that my employer (ORNL) should follow the city’s lead and cut off the advertising lights on its vending machines as part of its “Sustainable Campus Initiative,” I was told that the vending machine owner doesn’t want to do that — mostly because they figure the lights might help their business, and they think it would be a waste of the perfectly good light bulbs that the vendor bought to light the machines. So the vendor doesn’t need to consider the real cost of his actions, and ORNL continues to foot the bill for useless lighting, while missing out on what should be an easy opportunity for reducing energy consumption.

I have no doubt that the same situation prevails at the vending sites in state buildings, at state parks, etc. That is, the vending companies that receive the benefit of the lighting in their machines don’t pay the costs of that lighting — instead they pass it along to the state’s taxpayers — so they have no economic incentive to do the right thing. I don’t know who in the legislature proposed this legislation, but whoever it was deserves our thanks.

This is just one example of how difficult it can be to curtail activities that have a negative impact on our environment. In general, consumers of energy aren’t being charged the full costs of their (our!) actions, so they (we!) don’t have the necessary economic incentive to change their (our!) behavior.

I was gratified when the Oak Ridge City Council and city staff took the first steps toward a program of “greening” the city. I hope we will be able to continue to follow through with actions, even when those actions won’t always provide a clear near-term economic benefit.

Added on March 23: The bill (SB 395 – HB 616) has a fiscal note indicating that it would save the state $438,000 annually. What’s silly about that?

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Tennessee: Please don’t take these two backward steps

I expected the state budget to be the main topic Monday morning at the League of Women Voters’ monthly Breakfast with the Legislators, and I was right (as Bob Fowler reported in the News Sentinel). I didn’t predict the discussion that occurred over reauthorization of the Tennessee Plan (the procedure that Tennessee uses to select judges for the state’s highest courts) and proposals to return to the days when most school superintendents were elected, not appointed. When asked about these topics, neither State Senators Randy McNally or Ken Yager gave clear and forthright statements of support for the status quo. Both hemmed and hawed a lot, and Yager’s comments suggested that may be leaning toward returning to direct election of appellate court judges (but only in non-partisan elections — he said he opposed having appellate judges elected in partisan elections) and that he might want to let counties go back to electing school superintendents.

I found myself with the sinking feeling that the Republican majority in the State Senate is committed to restoring direct elections for these positions, and that our two local Senators were reluctant to say anything contrary to their party’s position.

Direct election of senior judges and school superintendents is a bad idea. We need to maintain an independent judiciary that makes decisions based on the law, not on popular opinion or the wishes of big campaign contributors. Also, we need for our public schools to be run by professional educators who are motivated by the needs of children, not the need to be re-elected.  I hope the General Assembly members recognize that changing back to direct election of these offices would be a major step backward — no, make that two steps backward — for Tennessee.

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