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Are the growth rates in local coronavirus cases moderating?

After the steep increase in case rates that I observed the middle of last week (see my video on the city Facebook page), the growth in 7-day average coronavirus case rates in Anderson and Roane Counties seems to have leveled off. Do not think that a reduction in the growth rate justifies complacency — Harvard University public health experts say that a case rate over 25 means we should have a stay-at-home order!!

I want to hope that the moderation in case growth is real, and that it is happening because people have been taking this situation seriously and are wearing masks and avoiding close contact. I do hope the trend continues. Let’s keep it up, folks!

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How many cases in Oak Ridge?

I have been asked why I have talked about data on coronavirus in the counties, instead of in our city of Oak Ridge. The answer is that the state does not provide information for the city.

However, they do publish some data that starts to answer the question about Oak Ridge. Maps are published periodically that give ranges of values for case rates by zip code. The latest map of recent conditions shows that as of July 29, the 37830 zip code had a 21-day case rate between 347 and 425 cases per 100,000 population. That works out to 104 to 127 new cases in Oak Ridge during the 3-week period July 9 to July 29 (about 5 or 6 new cases every day, on average). Another map shows that from the beginning of the pandemic through July 31, Oak Ridge has had a total case rate between 741 and 1029 cases per 100,000. According to my arithmetic, that is somewhere between 222 and 309 total cases since this began.

With school reopening, the Oak Ridge school district has pledged to keep the community informed about cases in our schools. The state health department is not doing this statewide, but they have started publishing a new data set (by county) on coronavirus cases in kids ages 5 to 18 (school-age kids). The numbers for our two counties will be sobering information for our school leaders who have been working to start the school year safely:

  • In the last 13 days (July 19 to 31), 45 Anderson County kids and 27 Roane County kids were reported with new positive tests for COVID-19.

Best wishes to everyone as we try to keep each other safe!

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Coronavirus is spreading too fast

The state of Tennessee data on coronavirus in our area paint a disturbing picture. The Oak Ridge area is now starting to see the same rates of infection (although fewer cases) as places with larger populations that have been labeled epidemic red zones. Until a few weeks ago the per capita rates of infection were low, but the situation is changing fast. With many stores and restaurants open under near-normal conditions, schools reopening next week, and no local mask mandate, the virus is likely to continue finding people to infect. There are many different ways to analyze disease data; the metrics I am presenting here are ones that are used to indicate the spread of infection.

As of July 1 (just a little more than three weeks ago) Anderson County had reported 26 new cases in 7 days. Numbers like that were worrisome to residents (the numbers were much larger than it had been earlier), but for those 7 days the county rate of new cases per day per 100,000 people was (according to my calculations from state data) just 4.8 — comfortably smaller than the 7-day average rate of 8.3 that neighboring Knox County was looking at that day, when the county health board voted to mandate wearing of masks in public settings to try to control further spread. On July 1, Roane County had a 7-day average case rate of only 2.9.

Since July 1, case rates have increased dramatically in Anderson and Roane Counties. Rates here are now starting to surpass Knox County:

7-day average cases per day per 100,000 population

CountyJuly 1July 13July 20July 23
Anderson4.812.416.522.6
Roane2.96.99.822.3
Knox8.315.921.822.3

The Knox County Health Department is rightly saying it is too early to tell how well the mask order is working, but I think that mask order might explain why case rates are not growing nearly as fast in Knox County as in Anderson and Roane.

The percentage of COVID-19 PCR tests that are returned positive (another measure of virus spread) has also been growing, so that local positivity rates now match those in Knox County. This table shows 7-day averages for the periods ending on the date shown:

CountyJuly 1July 13July 20July 23
Anderson3.0%5.8%8.8%8.3%
Roane2.1%4.1%5.5%8.0%
Knox4.5%7.0%9.2%8.3%

Without effective measures (like near-universal wearing of masks) to minimize spread of infection, I expect that these numbers will continue to grow rapidly. At the moment, the City of Oak Ridge cannot do much to change the situation. The Tennessee governor has preempted cities from acting to address COVID-19 (cities normally have authority to regulate behavior detrimental to public health, but not for COVID-19), and both the governor and our county mayors have declined to mandate precautions. Unless we want to shut everything down again, or deal with an increasing burden of illness in our community, I guess we can only hope — and pray — that people, businesses, and institutions will adopt sensible measures to prevent disease transmission.

Please stay safe!

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Not for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking ahead to the new City Council

citysealIs it three weeks since the election already?!? Yes, it is. I’m elected to Council again, sworn in, and now it seems I am the new Mayor Pro-Tem.

The election results posted by the county election commissions show that a total of 8,966 voters participated in the election in Oak Ridge — well over 40% of the registered voters. Here are the vote tallies, with my calculation of each candidate’s percentage of the voters, and winners marked in bold:
Kelly Callison 4022 44.9%
Rick Chinn 4151 46.3%
Anne Garcia Garland 2620 29.2%
Warren Gooch 4556 50.8%
Gary Love 1494 16.7%
David Mosby 3126 34.9%
Pedro Otaduy 762 8.5%
Aditya “Doc” Savara 1741 19.4%
Ellen Smith 3627 40.5%
Eric Tobler 3115 34.7%

Now we move on to the business of governing. Monday night’s swearing-in was more of a ceremonial occasion than I ever recall in the past, impressively conducted by long-time city judge Bob McNees in his judicial robes.

The vote for Mayor took a lot longer than I had expected, due to an unexpectedly even split of votes among the 4 announced candidates. I congratulate Warren Gooch on his new position as Mayor, and I hope to do a good job as his back-up in the position of Mayor Pro Tem (the Council member who fills in when the Mayor is absent). Thanks to my fellow Council members for entrusting me with that position.

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Unexpected news

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signThis is news I was definitely not expecting:

The Progress PAC (the O.R. Chamber of Commerce political action committee) included me in its list of endorsements, announced to the news media in a press release earlier today.

This was surprising news because I have never been aligned with the Chamber, I have strongly opposed some Chamber initiatives in the past, and I am not shy about my support for principles like conservation of publicly owned open space and putting the interests of existing residents and owners ahead of the interests of new business development. However, I respect the Chamber as the main representative of and advocate for a very important element of our community — and a group whose members and volunteers who are passionate about the future of Oak Ridge. We share many common goals and interests in this community, and if we are going to make progress as a community, it’s necessary for government, the business community, our nonprofit sector, and (ideally) all citizens to try to understand each other’s interests and needs and work together for the benefit of all.

I told the PAC’s committee (hard-working civic volunteers, all) that I would accept their endorsement, just as I would accept the endorsement of any group of citizens who go to the trouble of evaluating candidates for office and making endorsements as a group. I see the PAC’s decision to include me among their endorsements as indicating a recognition that people with divergent perspectives can work together to achieve positive outcomes for our community (indeed, diversity produces more positive outcomes than uniformity!)  — and that I am both qualified and committed to work for what’s best for Oak Ridge as a member of the City Council.

I am well aware that some people are suspicious about the Progress PAC’s motives and the candidates who cooperated with the PAC. As I said long before receiving today’s news, the formation of a political action committee makes the Chamber’s role in local political activity more transparent than it has ever been in the past. The PAC must operate under stringent state of Tennessee rules for multicandidate political action committees — getting its funds from member donations (no money from the Chamber organization) and publicly reporting all donations and expenditures over $100.

Additionally, the Progress PAC will not be providing money to any of the candidates they are endorsing — I’m not sure what the PAC plans to do, beyond publicizing its endorsements.  I recall that several other groups have endorsed (and promoted) slates of local candidates in in past Oak Ridge elections, but I don’t believe that any of those groups registered as a PAC. With that background, I congratulate the Progress PAC for operating in the open, as required by current state law.

Anyone who knows me at all well will laugh at the suggestion that the Progress PAC endorsement will change my opinions, positions, or future votes if I am elected to City Council. As I did in the past, I will make up my own mind, always aiming for what’s best for the community. I’ll do my own analysis, ask questions, seek out public input, and listen to what others have to say — and I will pursue consensus decisions where possible (because it’s rare for a 4-3 vote to result in a decision that everyone is happy to support — and our local government needs to present a more united front and a more positive image than it has done in the recent past).

The questions that the Progress PAC asked candidates were aimed at gaining information about candidates’ views on broad topics in local governance and our ideas and plans for responding to community challenges — they were not narrowly focused on the interests of the Chamber and the business community. I have the impression that most of us candidates (even those who refused to be considered for PAC endorsement) found it worthwhile to develop responses to the PAC questions because it helped us frame positions on questions that many citizens are asking. All of my answers to the PAC questionnaire are available on this blog:

1 – A bit of vision

2 – Where will the money come from?

3 – Patching relations between Council and schools

4- Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

5 – On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

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

 

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Both Jackson Square and downtown are important

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

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

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

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

Farmer's Market at Jackson Square

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

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

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

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

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Candidate forum season enters the home stretch

cityseal There are three candidate events remaining on the calendar for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • Thursday, October 9 – DFET (Democracy for East Tennessee) meet-the-candidates event, 7:00 pm at Oak Ridge Civic Center gym
  • Tuesday, October 14 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for City Council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road
  • Thursday, October 16 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for School Board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road

Early voting starts Wednesday, October 15, and runs through Thursday, October 30. Election day is Tuesday, November 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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