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City Council’s best and worst: September 27th Observer question

The Oak Ridge Observer‘s question for Council candidates this week was “What’s the best thing City Council has done in the past ten years? And what’s the worst thing?”

I chose to focus my 75-words-or-less answer on the five years that I’ve been on Council. The first part of my response (in the September 27 edition of the Observer) says:

Council’s best action in my five years in office was making a good hire for city manager. Under Mark Watson, there has been real progress against chronic problems such as neighborhood blight.

In a council-manager government like ours, it is pretty much a given that the single most important thing the Council does is to choose and employ a good city manager. It’s the manager, not the council, who directs the rest of the city staff and runs the city on a daily basis. When city manager Jim O’Connor left for another position at the end of 2009, we had to recruit and select a new manager. Mark Watson arrived in the summer of 2010. Change didn’t occur overnight, but after two years it’s clear that his personnel actions (such as the hiring of Police Chief Jim Akagi), the policy initiatives he’s brought to Council, and his day-to-day direction to staff, have made inroads against some chronic problems in the city.

In the second part of my response, I said:

Council’s biggest shortcoming has been our failure to undertake a critical examination of the city’s economic development efforts. The results we have achieved aren’t commensurate with the amounts we spend on marketing, lobbyists, special events, etc.

In a typical year, Oak Ridge spends over $900,000 of our city budget in the name of “economic diversification.” That money goes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion; to the Chamber of Commerce and several other regional economic development organizations for business recruitment and promotion; and to the city’s lobbyists in Washington, DC, and Nashville. It also pays for all or part of a variety of special events, such as the Secret City Festival, July 4th fireworks, and “Secret City Sounds” concerts on summer evenings. These things have been supported year in and year out because of a general perception that they are good things for the city to support.

In addition, business incentives such as tax abatements are a cost to the city, and the city Industrial Development Board uses funds obtained from public resources to pay for infrastructure improvements, spec buildings, and other activities at industrial parks and other business properties. In total, city government spends a good bit more than $1 million a year on economic development.

For the most part, these are things the city should continue to support. However,  I don’t think that the expenditure over 1 million dollars a year is achieving  the amount of benefit we ought to expect from that amount of money, so we are overdue for a critical evaluation of this entire program. Council is not qualified to devise a new strategy for economic development, but we need to try to measure the return on our investment, ask why Oak Ridge is supporting a particular set of activities — and whether decisions made long ago still make sense, seek recommendations on actions and strategies that might produce better results, and ask what is the right amount for the city to be spending on these efforts. Ideally, a re-examination of the city’s economic development activities would happen annually.

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