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Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council

My Views on some Issues

Lobbyist services and efforts to obtain additional federal assistance

I have supported City efforts to obtain additional federal financial support to compensate for the "special burdens" of being an atomic energy community. My involvement in local environmental matters has made me very aware of the special burdens Oak Ridge faces, including the negative effects of outsiders' misconceptions about environmental conditions, the special costs of providing public services in a city with a major federal presence, and burdens related to future long-term stewardship for the environmental legacy that will remain after DOE announces that it has finished clean-up on the Oak Ridge Reservation.

I was initially encouraged about the City's current efforts to get the state to authorize "tipping fees" on facilities used for disposal of mixed radioactive and hazardous wastes.
Anderson County's legislators, State Senator Randy McNally and Representative Jim Hackworth, introduced bills in the Tennessee General Assembly that would allow municipalities and counties to collect fees from generators that send waste to a mixed waste disposal facility in their jurisdictions. The idea was that the city and counties could collect fees from DOE for waste disposal in DOE's Environmental Management Waste Facility in Bear Creek Valley. Since the  proposed law would not cost the state anything and would only affect Oak Ridge, it probably could have sailed smoothly through the legislature -- with or without the help of a paid lobbyist -- if it had had the support of the Oak Ridge community before it was introduced in Nashville. However, it was not a wise investment for the City to hire a lobbyist to "sell" this plan to the state legislature before it had been "sold" in Oak Ridge, and it died due to lack of consensus here.

We should not hire paid lobbyists except in unusual cases when we have a clear and specific goal for legislative action and the bills will not pass without specialized political help. We should not have needed special help to pass this bill in Nashville, if community support had developed before it was proposed in Nashville.

Earlier, it was a good idea to hire a law firm to help with the funding effort, but the city did not get its money's worth for the $12,000 monthly fee paid to the Baker Donelson firm. The contract should not have been allowed to run for the full 3 years. The money that was being used to pay for the law firm is not "burning a hole in the city's pocket," waiting to be spent. Rather than throwing it away on lobbyists, we should use it for local needs.

Meanwhile, we should treat the DOE Oak Ridge Reservation land as a valuable community asset in its present state. Its valuable functions include conservation, recreational open space (that should be opened up to more uses), a location for environmental research and possible future federal missions (the SNS wouldn't be here without the land resource), and a physical buffer that helps assure residents that we are shielded from DOE's industrial activities.

More commentary and online discussion of lobbying contracts.
More commentary and online discussion on DOE land issues.

Redevelopment of Oak Ridge Mall

I strongly support the concept of converting the Oak Ridge Mall into a "town center" -- a commercial development that recovers some of the "feel" and function of a traditional downtown. This is a vitally important initiative to assure Oak Ridge's future, so it is appropriate for the City to assume a role in it. We need to recapture the mall area as a retail center because residents need shopping, because Tennessee's tax structure makes retail an important source of revenue for local governments, and because the lack of a vibrant retail sector in Oak Ridge is one of the factors that cause area newcomers to locate somewhere else.

More commentary and online discussion of this issue.

Senior citizens programs

Each year, plans for a new senior center get delayed until farther in the future. Now that Oak Ridge High School is the City’s number one capital priority, a new senior center is even less likely to become a reality. Seniors who used the old facility are understandably frustrated. The Emory Valley Center is an inferior facility and lacks the central location of the old center. Rather than griping about the situation with the senior center, it’s time for Oak Ridge’s seniors and the City’s leadership to do some new creative thinking about how to best serve our large senior population – with or without a new building.

Relatively few seniors take advantage of the activities at the senior center, largely because many important programs for seniors exist independently of the senior center. The City senior program is serving many seniors well when it connects them with the city transit and taxi coupon program and with resources and opportunities at the public library, Civic Center, Keystone Elder Day Center, Oak Ridge Institute of Continued Learning, local churches, and institutions such as the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Children’s Museum, the hospital, and schools that always need volunteers.

The City should be looking to fill other unmet needs. I would like to see improved transportation for elderly residents. City Council should use its regulatory authority to ensure that the local taxi company has safe and well-maintained vehicles. City leadership should explore options for expanding transportation services to the evening hours and should work with private business to develop a system of occasional group transportation (for example, by van) to out-of-town destinations of interest to many seniors, such as Knoxville arts events, Knox County shopping centers, and the Smokies.

More commentary and online discussion of this issue.

Tax abatements for commercial development

City Council has authorized a package of standard tax abatements as incentives for major new commercial developments (including retail, apartments, and office projects) and renovations. The Industrial Development Board may now grant multi-year property tax reductions for the value added by certain projects with new investments of over $1 million.

I like the idea of offering creative incentives for certain types of commercial development that address a particular civic need (such as revitalizing retail in the city center mall area or restoring an historic property such as the Alexander Inn) or where the developer must overcome significant obstacles that increase the cost of the project (for example, if the project includes renovating or demolishing long-vacant buildings that contain asbestos). However, I am uncomfortable with public subsidies for commercial projects unless those projects address an identified civic need. The standard package of subsidies now in place may encourage unnecessary development that competes unfairly against existing businesses. Council should modify this plan to require clearer linkage with identified city objectives.

More commentary and online discussion of this issue.

Highland View neighborhood revitalization

I am glad that the City is trying to revitalize older neighborhoods -- for the well-being of the people who live there, and to make these areas more attractive and desirable for a new generation of residents. The Oak Ridge Housing Task Force, with the city staff and City Council, deserves thanks for starting the process in this center-city neighborhood. The neighborhood steering committee worked hard to create a good process that the new Highland View Redevelopment Advisory Board will oversee.

I support demolition of the Applewood Apartments, because they appear to have become physically hazardous to tenants and because they are a source of blight in the neighborhood. Some other structures in the area may deserve a similar fate.
In general, however, I would prefer to support and enhance the existing neighborhood instead of tearing it down. I believe that the best long-term results for this and other older neighborhoods will come from empowering and assisting homeowners and other property owners, rather than imposing large-scale "urban renewal."

More commentary and online discussion of this issue.

Pension equity for retired federal contractor employees

Retirees from the federal contractors that operate the DOE facilities in Oak Ridge are not getting a fair deal. The value of their pensions is steadily declining. The pension fund has a healthy balance, but there  is no provision for adjusting pensions to accommodate increases in the cost of living. Pensioners have seen their purchasing power seriously decrease. Other AEC/DOE contractor pension programs do not treat retirees so shabbily.

Not only is fairer treatment for these Oak Ridge retirees -- most of them folks who dedicated their working lives to helping the West win the Cold War -- the right thing to do, but it would benefit everyone in our area by injecting many additional dollars into the local economy. The Coalition of Oak Ridge Retired Employees has outlined a set of requests to restore some of the lost buying power of current retirees and assure the benefits of future retirees. Their requests are reasonable ones (for example, they want pensioners to have 75% of the purchasing power they retired with -- that's a modest request). It is gratifying that the City Council decided to lend its support to retirees' efforts to achieve more equitable pension treatment.

More commentary and online discussion of this issue.

See additional comments on these and other topics in the online forum archive and current blog.
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