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city budget

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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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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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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Sitting at another City Council meeting

cityseal I had an EQAB work session earlier, but now I’m at the City Council meeting, having arrived late. I’m not going to live-blog this one, but I can do bit of real-time reporting.

City Council voted 4-2 (Baughn and Garcia Garland opposed; Mosby arrived later) to give Habitat for Humanity a property on Hillside Road. Later they voted 4-3 not to give Oak Ridge Schools approximately $35,000 from  traffic camera revenues for repair of the sinkhole in the high school soccer field. (If I remember right, the four who opposed the soccer field money were Baughn, Beehan, Garcia Garland and Miller. Hensley, Hope and Mosby supported the funding.)

Now the item on the agenda is the FY 2014 budget — for the fiscal year starting July 1. First item of discussion is the school system’s request for city financial support for additional school resource officers (SROs). City Manager Mark Watson says the schools request doesn’t account for the cost of police cars for the additional officers that would be hired. Federal grants exist for school policing, and the city will apply for a grant that could help pay for new officers and equipment. Charlie Hensley suggests waiting until we know about a grant (in the summer) until making a decision on this item. Also, Chuck Hope wants the details of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the schools to be hammered out before making any decision on funding for additional officers in the schools. Chuck also wonders if the SROs need patrol vehicles. Police chief Jim Akagi says that it’s important to have a vehicle, but Chuck thinks it might be possible to outfit a vehicle that’s not fully suited for patrol use. Mark Watson agrees that several things, including the MOU, are pending and need to be sorted out before this is resolved.

Now, at 9:17 pm, there’s a vote on a motion by Trina Baughn to reduce the property tax rate by 1 cent. It fails by a vote of 4-2 (Baughn and Hope voted for), with Anne Garcia Garland abstaining.

The full budget passed without further discussion.

It’s 9:23 PM, and there’s a vote to fill an unexpired term on the Municipal Planning Commission. Candidates are Sheldon Green, Andrew Howe, Martin McBride, and Hugh Ward. Votes: Mosby for Green, Hensley for Ward, Miller for Green, Beehan for Green, Hope for Green, Baughn for McBride, and Garcia Garland for Howe. Sheldon Green is the new Planning Commission member.

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Thoughts on the school budget dilemma

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolAt Oak Ridge Today, I was asked how I would vote on the Oak Ridge Schools budget tomorrow evening if I were a member of City Council. The commenter requested a yes-no answer, but they aren’t going to get one.

I don’t have the same information that Council members have right now, so  I can’t be sure what I’d be thinking or how I’d plan to vote if I were on City Council. The only budget request I’ve seen from the schools is the board’s budget and I haven’t been privy to the messages that I know Council members are getting from citizens, school officials, and city staff. It’s a safe bet that Council members are hearing from folks who want them to increase the amount (by how much, I can’t say) that the city government transfers to the schools, and that this is being requested so that the schools can restore some teaching positions that would otherwise be cut under the schools budget for the 2013-2014 school year.

So what do I think? I’m distressed by news reports that indicate that school budget cuts will cut into some “meat and bones,” including laying off some teachers.  The reductions are partly justified by lower K-12 enrollment projections and interim superintendent Bob Smallridge says that impacts on the instructional program will be minimal, but I can’t avoid thinking that these reductions will reduce the school system’s ability to meet our kids’ needs.

However, I also have to assume that an increase in the city transfer to the schools would mean increasing the city property tax rate above the current rate of $2.39 per $100 assessed value. Because Oak Ridgers value our quality school system, many residents would gladly pay more tax to avoid cuts to the schools. At the same time, though, a tax increase would be a burden on some citizens and would make Oak Ridge a little less competitive with surrounding communities with lower taxes. Therefore, Council needs to look extremely carefully at what Oak Ridgers will get for their money if the city decides to increase property taxes in order to send more money to the schools.

Unfortunately, it appears to me from the Oak Ridge Schools budget (available at this link) that the school board and school administration may be putting a higher priority on management than on teachers and kids. This continues a disturbing pattern we saw in years past. Adding up the pluses and minuses in the summary of expenditures on page 25 of the budget, I find that “Instruction” (lines 71100 to 71900) would be cut by $424,809, “Support Services” for students and instruction (lines 72120 to 72230) would be cut $163,689, “Transportation” (mostly school buses) would be cut $76,787, but the combination of facility operations and various centralized administrative functions and services (lines 72310 to 72620 and line 72810) would get an increase of $270,087. Increasing the budget in that last category, while cutting budgets for functions that directly affect students, suggests that the school board and school administration don’t have the same priorities that I believe most of the school system’s advocates have — or possibly even that this is a deliberate strategy to put public pressure on City Council to increase the school budget. [Edited May 29: In email and at the Oak Ridge Daily Hoot, Angi Agle has explained  that the transportation reduction is not a cut in services, but is merely a result of shifting bus leasing costs from the Transportation line to the Equipment Rental & Replacement Fund line, which is a budget line that I didn’t include in the summary tallies above. She also notes an increase in the budget for water and sewer costs paid to the city. Both the schools and the city government must pay retail rates for these utility services, the same as if they were private businesses, so both budgets are affected by increased water and sewer rates. The increase in the water & sewer line in next year’s school budget is $67,127, so it accounts for about one-fourth of the administrative functions and services increase I noted above.]

Under Oak Ridge’s city charter, the City Council can’t amend the Oak Ridge Schools budget or tell the school system how to spend its money.  However,  if City Council is asked to increase property taxes to augment the school budget, City Council needs to ask hard questions — and get good answers to those questions — to provide assurance that any extra funding for the schools will go to address the needs of students, not the needs of administrators. Also, it’s high time for the school administration and city administration to get serious about something that Council members pushed for over the last several years — exploring opportunities to improve the efficiency of Oak Ridge’s public enterprise (that is, city government and the school district) by sharing resources in functions like facility maintenance and purchasing.

I know that all Council members value Oak Ridge’s schools and want the best for them, but unless better answers are forthcoming than I saw over the last several years, I’m afraid that Council will feel they must say “no” to a school system request for additional funds.

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Live blogging the May 16th City Council special called meeting

The special meeting is about proposed amendments to the city budget for FY 2014, which starts July 1, 2013. The agenda for the meeting, plus backup material about staff analysis of the different proposals by council members, is online on the City of Oak Ridge website. Mayor Tom Beehan has asked to have discussion of the ideas before motions are introduced. Other council members are asking to discuss the budget-cutting items before the items that would add to the budget. 5:23 PM

Trina Baughn says her goal is to reduce the property tax rate by 5 to 10 cents. (The total tax rate currently is $2.39, per $100 of assessed value. Single-family residences, farmland, and forest are assessed at 25% of appraised value; commercial and industrial property is assessed at 40% of appraised value. She wants other Council members to state their goals up-front, too. 5:28 PM

City manager Mark Watson said that the last 3 years have seen a lot of shuffling of personnel in the city organization, during which time the city has maintained the same tax rate. He’s been wanting to keep the tax rate level. He hears in the community that people like the way things are going and think they get a pretty good bang for their buck in city government. Good things that are happening include 20% reduction in crime, the upcoming dog park, new roof at Woodland School, traffic improvements paid for by red-light camera money, etc. Finance director is concerned about not reducing reserves. 5:33 PM

Mayor Tom Beehan says people are happy with the services they receive. He doesn’t want to cut services or raise taxes. Cutting services or raising taxes would send the wrong message to people who are considering moving here. 5:35 PM

Anne Garcia Garland says our tax rate isn’t a problem. It’s not egregious. It’s not a burden on most people. It’s lower than a lot of rates in other parts of the country. City manager has been making some significant changes, trying different things, and we need to give that process a chance. He’s proposed some changes in his proposed budget. We’re looking forward to growth there. There are setbacks now due to the federal government, but this is the wrong time to be making cuts. Focus on how the city’s organizations and services are managed, not on cutting what we spend. Keeping our tax rate level for several years has meant that we are cutting things every year because the budget isn’t keeping up with inflation. 5:39 PM (more…)

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Are state and local budget-cutting slowing economic recovery?

This thought-provoking analysis by Nobel economist Paul Krugman probably has implications for the decisions that Oak Ridge needs to be making on various aspects of the city budget. He says that state and local budget cuts are “exerting a powerful drag on the economy as a whole.” He compares government spending during the Obama-era economic expansion (starting in June 2009) with the Reagan-era expansion (starting November 1982):

By this stage in the Reagan recovery, government employment (which is mainly at the state and local level, with about half the jobs in education) had risen by 3.1 percent; this time around, it’s down by 2.7 percent.

Government purchases of goods and services by this stage of the Reagan recovery (adjusted for inflation) had risen by 11.6 percent; this time, they’re down by 2.6 percent.

And the gap persists even when you do include transfers, some of which have stayed high precisely because unemployment is still so high. Adjusted for inflation, Reagan-era spending rose 10.2 percent in the first 10 quarters of recovery, Obama-era spending only 2.6 percent.

He says “We’re talking big numbers here. If government employment under Mr. Obama had grown at Reagan-era rates, 1.3 million more Americans would be working as schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, etc., than are currently employed in such jobs. And once you take the effects of public spending on private employment into account, a rough estimate is that the unemployment rate would be 1.5 percentage points lower than it is, or below 7 percent — significantly better than the Reagan economy at this stage.”

We could read this as saying that local governments should be increasing property taxes (and water and wastewater rates) to get more money moving faster within our local economy, but Krugman says the spending should happen at the federal level:

We can take a big step toward full employment just by using the federal government’s low borrowing costs to help state and local governments rehire the schoolteachers and police officers they laid off, while restarting the road repair and improvement projects they canceled or put on hold.

That federal spending isn’t going to happen. Oak Ridge has not (yet) laid off police officers, but the schools have cut teaching assistant positions, and there are some capital projects we’ve deferred… How would our economy — and retail shopping areas — look right now if we dug into our pockets and spent more on our local needs? (That’s not likely to happen, but this is the kind of discussion we ought to be having.)

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Public-input session on use of traffic-camera revenue

Monday night, April 4, at 6:30 pm (corrected) the City will conduct a public meeting for input on the use of traffic camera revenue. The meeting is at the Civic Center social room. I’ll be there, and I will be interested to hear what residents have to say. I’ve already shared some of my views on this blog, but it’s time to say some more.

Council members have already heard from citizens with opinions on the use of this money. Many support the idea of traffic safety improvements, but I have also heard from people who want the City to use this money to pay down the city’s debt, as well as folks who support other specific expenditures.

Regarding the idea of paying down the debt, the idea is appealing. In effect, we’ve already done some of that. The first year’s revenues from the traffic cameras (that is, revenues for fiscal 2010) totaled about $950,000 and were applied to improving the city’s financial position by increasing cash reserves. This did not directly reduce the existing city debt, but it avoids some additional borrowing, provides a cushion against future emergencies, and helps the city maintain a good credit rating that reduces the cost of borrowing. There are good reasons not to use additional camera revenue to pay down city debt. First, I have learned that on most municipal debt obligations, it is not possible to prepay principal. (This has to do with the way the borrowing is structured.) Also, the amount of money generated by the traffic cameras (I expect that it will be about $600,000 this year) is unfortunately very small in comparison to the total city debt (at the end of fiscal 2010, this was about $107 million for schools and city government, plus about $61 million for electric/water/wastewater facilities) and even the city’s annual expenditure (over $7 million) for debt service. Finally,  interest rates on the debt are very low right now, so prepaying debt wouldn’t save us much in the way of future interest.

I think it is best to use this money to addresscity needs that might not otherwise be addressed — through projects that will have a noticeable positive impact on people’s lives and well-being. Furthermore, since Oak Ridge should not depend on the camera revenue being available forever (because it is possible that the cameras will be eliminated, and even if they are retained, it is expected that the level of violations will decrease), the money should be used for one-time purposes instead of continuing programs. And, as I discussed in my earlier blog comments, because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. (Some of my fellow Council members pledged to do this back when the camera contract was approved.)

Some residents have suggested building an overhead walkway to connect the high school and civic center. This would be a safety improvement that would address a long-time city need. City staff did recommend an overhead walkway due to several factors. Not only would it be extremely expensive (due in part to the requirement to provide either elevators or long wheelchair ramps on both ends), but experience elsewhere indicates that when there is a long stairway or ramp to get to a pedestrian overpass, people often decide to take their chances by jaywalking instead of using the overpass. Instead, staff has recommended installing a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. This should be an effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving the desired results from the overhead walkway  — and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location. As stated earlier, it’s my top priority for spending traffic camera money — and I think it would have a big positive impact on both our quality of life and newcomers’ perceptions of the city.

Other safety-related proposals I’ve heard from residents include adding more  school resource officers  and funding driver’s education at the high school. Neither of these ideas fits the test of being a one-time expenditure — once started, people would expect the funding to continue in the future (even if the camera money went away).

Besides the crossing at the high school, there are other traffic/pedestrian safety-related projects on the staff’s list that I believe address important city needs — and possibly could help ameliorate some of the situations that led to installation of the cameras:

  • Pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62).
  • A northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road
  • A walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

These projects likely would absorb this year’s camera money, which is the focus of the resolution that is currently up for Council consideration. Other initiatives a little bit farther down the staff priority list are also worthwhile, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of their priorities. Some additional initiatives that I think are particularly worth pursuing (or at least considering) are:

  • Create a physical barrier between traffic and the bike-ped trail where the Emory Valley Greenway is on the shoulder of Emory Valley Road. It’s not clear what arrangement will work best there, but something needs to be done to protect bicyclists from traffic — and to ensure that drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid young bicyclists who veer into the traffic lane.
  • Add a walk light and pedestrian signal at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with New York Avenue and Lafayette Drive. There are plenty of good reasons for people to try to walk across the Turnpike there (walking to work or walking from a workplace to a lunch spot, for example), but there is no way for pedestrians to request that the light change to red on the Turnpike to allow crossing (not a problem when traffic is heavy, but a real issue at some hours), and it’s not clear that the red light duration is adequate for pedestrians to cross.
  • Create a protected pedestrian crossing of Melton Lake Drive near Emory Valley Road, where the Emory Valley Greenway crosses. This is a high-volume crossing point where a safer crossing would have a positive impact on residents and visitors. However, there is a vision for a roundabout there, and I would want to know that a new pedestrian crossing should be able to remain after the roundabout is installed.
  • Install “humped” crosswalks at locations on local streets, particularly in residential neighborhoods and near schools, where there is an identified need to get traffic to slow down. I can think of a few candidate spots in Woodland and and on Outer and West Outer Drives.
  • Acquire new reflective street signage that federal regulations will require cities to install over the next few years. The increased reflectivity of the new signs will enhance safety, and using traffic camera money for the signs would save money that otherwise would  come from property taxes — or additional city debt.

Those are relatively small projects. Some big-ticket items that I think we should consider in the future are:

  • Two roundabouts: One at the Melton Lake Drive and Emory Valley Road intersection and another at “Malfunction Junction” where Pennsylvania, Providence, North Tulane, and East Pasadena come together.
  • “Intelligent transportation systems” controls for stoplights on Illinois Avenue (and possibly later on Oak Ridge Turnpike) to ensure smoother traffic  flow. This would have several types of benefits. It’s easy to see how residents and visitors would appreciate improved traffic flow through town  — as would local businesses that may lose prospective customers who stay away to avoid being delayed by frequent stoplights.  I also see it as a safety measure — because a smoother passage through the stoplights would reduce the driver frustration that can tempt drivers to speed or run red lights. Finally, reducing stop-and-go driving would have environmental benefits by reducing emissions of tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gases.

It will be helpful for staff and City Council to hear from residents and business owners (Monday night and at other times) about these and other possible priorities — plus other ideas that people might have.

If the cameras are around for more than a couple of years, and if people continue to get ticketed for speeding and  running red lights, there likely will be an opportunity to consider other uses for the revenue (and the suggestions I’ve heard range from preschool to senior center, plus all life stages in between), but for now I see opportunities for traffic-safety enhancements that I think will noticeably improve the quality of life in Oak Ridge for many years to come.

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Budget passed on first reading

City Council passed the budget unanimously on first reading at our meeting Monday night.  Discussion was lengthy, and many amendments were proposed, but the only actual change in expenditures from the proposed budget was a $3,500 increase in funding for a social services program operated by Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties (ADFAC). The City’s certified tax rate after reappraisal is expected to be $2.39 — that’s the property tax rate that will bring in the same total amount of tax (on properties on the books last year) as last year’s $2.77 rate.  Council’s budget calls for a $2.39 rate.

Our property tax assessment notice arrived in Monday’s mail. The appraisal is up by a little more than 13%, which apparently is below the citywide average increase.  I have a hunch that the larger increases are on newer construction.

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