I’ve already heard from one citizen with a question about an item on the April 13 City Council agenda (the agenda was posted Friday), so I guess it’s high time to discuss some of the business items. There’s a rezoning, action on the Chamber of Commerce contract, numerous bids and contracts including purchase of new police vehicles, “and much more.” Here are my musings about a few of these items (I’m interested in hearing what other residents think):
Rezoning request (updated April 7th)
The proposed rezoning is for a 1.25-acre lot at the corner of Tulsa Road and Tusculum Drive (there was a rezoning sign on the property, which is next to the entrance to the Burnham Woods subdivision, but I didn’t see the sign on Saturday). Requested rezoning is from R-4-B (multiple family residential) to O-2 (office district), to allow SMB Group (a construction contractor) to build a company office. (The company now has its office in the building at 100 Tulsa Road, at the corner of Tulsa and South Illinois Ave.) In addition to offices, permitted principal uses in the O-2 zone include multi-family dwellings, churches, hotels, day care facilities, and barber/beauty shops.
The Planning Commission recommended the rezoning by a unanimous vote at its March 26th meeting. The impact of the rezoning isn’t entirely clear. The R-4-B zone is supposed to be phased out, and uses in the new R-4 zone (which presumably would replace R-4-B) are pretty much the same as in the O-2 zone. The biggest difference I see are (1) in the R-4 zone buildings can occupy no more than 50% of the property, but the O-2 zone allows them to cover up to 80%, and (2) building plans in the O-2 zone require Planning Commission approval, but only staff review is required in the R-4 zone.
One possible concern is that the lot is mapped as being in the floodplain (of East Fork Poplar Creek and Gamble Valley Creek), but outside the floodway. Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance does not restrict development in the portion of the floodplain outside the floodway (this is called the “floodway fringe”), as long as the ground floor is at least 1 ft about the calculated height of the 100-year flood. Fill already placed on the lot appears to have raised it above the flood level, so this is no longer a concern. The contamination (by mercury and PCBs released from the Y-12 Plant) in the floodplain of East Fork Poplar Creek also should not be a concern because the project should not disturb soils.
We’ll learn more about the rezoning proposal at the City Council agenda review work session on Monday, April 6 (6:30 pm in the City Services Center on Woodbury Lane, behind K-Mart), and there’ll be a public hearing at the April 13th City Council meeting (7 pm in the municipal building courtroom).
Chamber of Commerce contract
The City of Oak Ridge has a contract with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce under which the Chamber (including the affiliated Oak Ridge Economic Partnership) provides economic development services to the City. The current contract is worth over $250,000 annually, including a $20,000 addition that the Council approved by a 5-2 vote in January of this year (Tom Hayes and I were the two who opposed this) to help fund an additional staff member to support the Chamber’s “Live Where You Work” residential recruitment program. The current contract expires June 30, 2009. It could be renewed for an additional year, but the Chamber wants to negotiate a new 3-year contract to begin July 1. City Manager Jim O’Connor is asking for Council authorization to negotiate with the Chamber to determine which option is in the City’s best interest.
Although it’s unlikely that meaningful changes will be made between now and July 1st, I hope to re-open meaningful dialog on the purpose and scope of the City’s relationship with the Chamber. Many residents question the City’s whole relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, asking whether it’s in the public interest to subsidize a chamber of commerce, which is fundamentally operated for the benefit of its membership. The cost of the contract and its benefit to the city are also perennial concerns. The rationale for the contractual relationship with the Chamber has to do with a concern that open-government laws would conflict with the need for confidentiality in business recruitment, as well as a perception that city government is inherently not very good at economic development. I think there is merit in this rationale, but it does appear to me that the City is essentially subsidizing the chamber without having a clear picture of what the public is getting for its money.
Much effort went into creating quantitative performance metrics for the current contract. It’s clear to me that it’s a lot of work for the Chamber to calculate and report those metrics (it turns out that the statistics they are asked to report are not readily available or easily determined), but it’s not clear that the metrics serve the intended purpose of ensuring that the City’s objectives are being met. I think the metrics need to be revisited.
I’d also like to see emphasis placed on helping local businesses (both new start-ups and long-existing companies) succeed, whether or not they are Chamber members. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many small businesses fail, but if local government resources are being spent on supporting business development, we should be helping existing small businesses (folks who have already invested in this city) avoid the types of mistakes that often lead to doom. Also, we should be helping local retail businesses promote themselves through measures like improved signage, special events, and “shop Oak Ridge” campaigns.
The “Live Where You Work” campaign is a great initiative (and long overdue), but I would have preferred to see it included in the current contract (which was supposed to include residential recruitment), instead of being added on as if it were an extra activity. I am waiting to hear whether the Chamber and City Manager want to enlarge the contract on a permanent basis, or if the $20,000 is a one-time thing (as Council was told back in January).
New police vehicles
Council is being asked to approve bid awards to spend $186,000 to buy six new Ford Crown Victorias (equipped for police use) and two Chevy Tahoes.
The Crown Victorias would replace some existing police cars (including some that have already broken down). Replacement of these cars is included in the City budget. I’m unclear on the purpose of the Chevy Tahoes, but the documentation indicates that the police would like to buy a third Tahoe if the city gets a federal grant. The bid prices for all of the vehicles are exceptionally low, so the City would get a good deal on the purchases.
It’s clear that our police vehicles need to be replaced on a regular basis, and that these bids are a pretty good deal, but I question the business-as-usual approach of continuing to buy new gas-guzzling Crown Victorias and SUVs. Two new directions that we should be exploring are (1) greater fuel efficiency and (2) take-home vehicles.
Fuel-efficient wheels for police. After experiencing last year’s high gas prices, and in face of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many police forces around the country and the world are testing more fuel-efficient cars for police use. This includes our local Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, which is trying out Dodge Chargers for patrol use. The Charger is a muscle car like the Crown Victoria, but it is rated as more fuel-efficient. Some other jurisdictions are testing smaller vehicles and hybrids for police use, including Chevy Impalas in Mobile, Alabama, the Pontiac Vibe in Cahokia, Illinois, and Toyota Camry hybrids in Salt Lake City, and even the Toyota Prius in Marion County, Florida. I know that police officers like their Crown Victoria, but if other vehicles meet the performance requirements of police work without using as much fuel, they can both save money and help reduce our impact on global climate and air quality.
Take-home vehicles. In a meeting some time back, I was surprised to hear Police Chief David Beams say that it would be possible to stretch the service life of some police cruisers by assigning them to police officers as take-home vehicles. Take-home vehicles would last longer because they would be used for only one shift (instead of being used around the clock). There’s plenty of support for this idea. In addition to saving on vehicle replacement costs, this could increase the police force’s ability to respond to unusual incidents, as officers called in from home could respond quickly. Only officers who live in Oak Ridge city limits should be eligible to take vehicles home, they should be used only to travel to and from work, and a police officer in a vehicle would have to be required to respond to any incidents he or she observes while in the vehicle. For those who qualified, a take-home car could become an added fringe benefit — this would even provide a tangible incentive for our men and women in blue to live inside the city. A take-home program wouldn’t eliminate the need to replace six cars this year, but it might be worth trying out on a small scale to see if it’s truly beneficial.