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Tennessee state issues

Roane & Anderson Counties zoom past Knox County in coronavirus incidence

CountyJuly 1July 13July 20July 27
7-day average of new cases per day per 100,000 population

The trends I described the other day looked worrisome enough, but now the rates of new cases per capita in Anderson and Roane Counties have exploded — and we have zoomed past Knox County.

Oak Ridge City Council sent a resolution to the Governor, passed by unanimous vote and signed by all Council members, requesting City government authority to mandate masks. No response yet….


Residents need more money in their pockets

At Thursday evening’s League of Women Voters forum for state legislative candidates, one of the questions was about increasing minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Tennessee has no state minimum wage, so the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour applies here. Minimum wage isn’t a local government issue, since state law prevents cities and counties from mandating a minimum wage, and anyway it wouldn’t make sense for a place like Oak Ridge to require a wage higher than that in the community next door.

At the forum, incumbents Rep. John Ragan and Sen. (and Lt. Gov.) Randy McNally, both Republicans said that the market should determine rates of pay, not government. Their opponents, Democrats Richard Dawson and Stuart Starr, both supported increases in the minimum. I’m disappointed by the incumbents’ opposition to a higher minimum wage, because I see the inadequate incomes of many local workers as a serious challenge for our whole community. Oak Ridge has far too many hard-working citizens who are having difficulty making ends meet without public and charitable assistance. I said as much in one of my responses to the Progress PAC questionnaire:

The biggest challenge I see … is that too many people don’t have enough money.  [This is not only a problem for these people, but also for our housing, schools, businesses, and civic affairs.] …The U.S. economy no longer generates jobs that pay the kinds of wages to low-skilled workers that earlier generations received. … I believe that we need a higher minimum wage in Tennessee, but city government can’t do that on its own…

The summer I was 17, I had a retail job that paid the federal minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Calculator, the hourly wage I received back then was equivalent in buying power to $10.36 in September 2018. That’s substantially more than the current federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Notably, a full-time worker getting $10.36 an hour should be able to afford a place to live here in Oak Ridge (unlike full-time workers getting $7.25, who are getting turned down by landlords who judge that they don’t make enough money to pay rent).

Over the last 80 years (since it was first enacted in 1938), the U.S. minimum wage has set a floor on the wages and salaries for all American workers (employers who want workers with more than minimum qualifications typically need to pay more than the minimum in order to attract and retain good employees), and helped create and support the middle class. I think our nation and state need to start raising that floor again, because hard-working people should not have to depend on charity to survive, and they deserve to have the resources to be good parents to their children, be good customers for business, and good contributors to the community at large.


Reason for Thursday elections in Tennessee

The answer to a question that has come up in conversation lately: Why does Tennessee hold its August elections on Thursday? 

It seems that Thursday was specified in the 1796 state constitution — and it’s still in the state constitution. No one knows why that day was chosen.


Trying to set the record straight on property tax

citybillI want to set the record straight regarding a couple of misconceptions about property tax that I see being spread by public discussions about city and county budgets.

On the Oak Ridge Today website, citizen Andrew Howe posted a comment saying:

The property tax rate should NEVER have to increase. It is basically a percentage of the value of the home, right? And if the value of the home raises (as it should, in line with the cost of living), then the taxes will also raise.

I can’t quarrel with Mr. Howe’s logic, but his conclusions are wrong. This is because he makes an assumption that is valid in many states but isn’t valid in Tennessee.

Under Tennessee law, when properties are reappraised, state officials calculate — and publicize — the property tax rate that will give the local government the same total amount of property tax that it was getting from existing properties before the reappraisal. (This calculated rate is called the “certified tax rate”.) That’s the new baseline tax rate. If a local government in Tennessee wants to get more property tax revenue after a reappraisal, the governing body has to vote to increase the tax rate above the certified rate.

This means that property tax collections in Tennessee don’t automatically increase when property values go up (nor do they drop if property values go down). If the value of your home rises with the cost of living, your tax bill won’t automatically go up. (After any reappraisal, however, some people’s city tax bills do go up because their property values went up more than the city average.)

That law gives local officials an incentive to hold the line on property tax increases. Property tax revenues in Tennessee don’t rise along with property values — and probably don’t keep up with increases in the cost of living. In recent decades, property tax rates in Oak Ridge and across the state have generally trended downward — meaning that taxes are now a smaller fraction of property value than they used to be. After the last reappraisal in Anderson and Roane counties, in 2010,  Oak Ridge’s certified property tax rate dropped from $2.77 to $2.39 (per $100 assessed value). Our city tax rate is still at $2.39, so the only increase in property tax collections has been what came from new development. When you consider that the combined city-and-county property tax rate for the Anderson County part of Oak Ridge was $5.34 in 1997 but only $4.74 as of 2012 — 11% less than it was 15 years earlier, it should be clear that tax collections here don’t automatically track property values or the cost of living.

In another online comment, Mr. Howe put forth some more misconceptions about property taxation.  He said:

We also need to ensure that the appraisal values stay the same… If the city lowers the rate, but starts appraising higher, residents end up paying the same.

Those statements may have had some validity in the past and they may still be true in other  places, but they aren’t true in 21st-century Tennessee. As I explained above, because of the certified tax rate process in Tennessee, reappraisals don’t give the city more property tax. Furthermore, city government has no role in property reappraisals (appraisals are done by the counties, under the direction of the elected county property assessors) and nowadays the appraisal process is supposed to be done according to uniform statewide rules and procedures for evaluating fair market value. Any property assessor who tried to “ensure that the appraised values stay the same” would be violating state law!

The property tax appraisal process isn’t perfect (that’s one reason why appraisals can be appealed to a board of equalization that’s made up of citizens who own property in the county), but it isn’t arbitrary either, and there’s no call for blaming its imperfections on local city politics.


Revisiting the property tax rate comparison

A comment on Oak Ridge Today has inspired me to update the comparison of property tax rates that I made back in January 2008. Using data from the Tennessee Comptroller, I am pleased to find that Oak Ridge made significant progress over the last 5 years in our comparative property tax burden (our rates in comparison with other places in the state) . The combined city and county property tax rates paid by Anderson County Oak Ridgers in 2012 are less than the rates in 19 other Tennessee jurisdictions, compared with just 6 other jurisdictions in 2007. Rates for Roane County Oak Ridge are less than those in 36 other jurisdictions, compared with just 14 in 2007. Since counties reappraise every 5 years, both data sets come at the same point in the appraisal cycle, so reappraisals shouldn’t distort the comparison.

As I noted in 2008, I compare the total of the local property rates paid because it’s not meaningful to compare just the city tax rates. Comparing tax rates in municipalities that offer a lot of services with rates in municipalities that leave these services to the county is like comparing the cost of a full-course meal at one restaurant with the price of the main course (or even just the appetizer) at another eatery. Comparisons should be based on he total property tax burden, which includes city and county property tax, as well as levies by the special school districts and other local taxing districts that exist in some areas.

The current combined property tax rate for Anderson County Oak Ridge is $4.74 (down from $5.33 in 2007) and for Roane County Oak Ridge it’s $4.36 (down from $4.92). Here’s the list of all the other Tennessee jurisdictions that equal or exceed those rates, led by six cities in Shelby County:

  • Memphis   $7.13
  • Bartlett   $5.55
  • Germantown   $5.545
  • Collierville   $5.49
  • Millington   $5.29
  • Arlington   $5.21
  • Humboldt   $5.19
  • Chattanooga   $5.0742
  • Chapel Hill (Marshall County)  $4.97
  • Bruceton (includes special school district tax)  $4.9624
  • Manchester   $4.9571
  • Oakdale   $4.9309
  • Goodlettsville  (Davidson County portion) $4.91
  • Ridgetop   $4.91
  • Lakeland   $4.91
  • Tullahoma (Coffee County portion)  $4.8725
  • Knoxville   $4.82
  • Tullahoma (Franklin County portion) $4.7552
  • Henning   $4.742
  • Oak Ridge (Anderson County portion)  $4.74
  • Ripley   $4.6874
  • Lewisburg   $4.67
  • Ridgeside   $4.6652
  • Nashville   $4.66
  • Dyersburg   $4.64
  • Trenton  (includes special school district tax) $4.637
  • Gates   $4.5674
  • Kenton (includes special school district tax)  $4.55
  • Bristol   $4.5207
  • Friendship   $4.504
  • Rutherford  (includes special school district tax) $4.45
  • Dyer (includes special school district tax)  $4.43
  • Signal Mountain   $4.4286
  • Lookout Mountain   $4.3852
  • Brownsville   $4.38
  • Clarksville   $4.38
  • Oak Ridge (Roane County portion)  $4.36
  • Medina (includes special school district tax) $4.3566

The next time someone says Oak Ridge has the state’s highest property taxes, let’s tell them how very wrong they are! It’s also worth remembering that many Tennessee counties add to the tax burden on their citizens by levying a wheel tax — something we don’t have.

Of course, Oak Ridge is still a long way from being one of the state’s low-tax jurisdictions. In case you’re curious, the lowest total property tax rates in the state are in unincorporated parts of Fayette County ($1.4781) and in Cumberland County outside of Crossville ($1.4975).


Voting day rules

Although a lot of folks took advantage of early voting, tomorrow is the official election day, and there will be lots of campaign activity outside precinct polling places around town. Recalling past elections when there has been confusion and misinformation about the rules, thinking about the questions that will arise tomorrow, and looking ahead to my candidacy for re-election in November, I reviewed the Tennessee state law (part of Title 2, Elections) on behavior at polling places.

Section 2-7-103 (“Persons allowed in polling place”) states that “No person may be admitted to a polling place [during voting] except election officials, voters, persons properly assisting voters, the press, poll watchers appointed under [state law] and others bearing written authorization from the county election commission.” Section 2-1-104(a)(17) defines “Polling place” to mean “the room or rooms where voters apply to vote and mark and cast their ballots”. That says to me that it is OK for people other than voters to be in the building where voting is occurring, as long as they stay away from the rooms where folks are voting.

There are special rules for the police: “No police or other law enforcement officer may come nearer to the entrance to a polling place than ten feet (10′) or enter the polling place except at the request of the officer of elections or the county election commission or to make an arrest or to vote.” I guess that means that police can’t be used to intimidate voters — a good rule to have, but hopefully not something that would arise in Oak Ridge.

Those of us who have taken our kids into the voting booth with us should be relieved to learn that this is legal. The law says “No person may go into a voting machine or a voting booth while it is occupied by a voter except as expressly authorized by this title,” but it also says “a child under seventeen (17) years of age may accompany the child’s parent or legal guardian into the polling place” and “such child may also enter the voting machine or voting booth with such parent or guardian to observe the voting process.”

Section 2-7-103 also says that “candidates may be present [in a polling place] after the polls close.”

Section 2-7-111 (“Posting of sample ballots and instructions — Arrangement of polling place — Restrictions”) deals with electioneering outside the polling place. The relevant excerpts say:

(a) The officer of elections … shall measure off one hundred feet (100′) from the entrances to the building in which the election is to be held and place boundary signs at that distance.

(b) (1) Within the appropriate boundary as established in subsection (a), and the building in which the polling place is located, the display of campaign posters, signs or other campaign materials, distribution of campaign materials, and solicitation of votes for or against any person, political party, or position on a question are prohibited. No campaign posters, signs or other campaign literature may be displayed on or in any building in which a polling place is located.

(2) Solicitation or collection for any cause is prohibited. This does not include the normal activities that may occur at such polling place such as a church, school, grocery, etc.

(3) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit any person from wearing a button, cap, hat, pin, shirt, or other article of clothing outside the established boundary but on the property where the polling place is located.

Section 2-7-104 (“Poll watchers”) allows “each political party,” “any organization of citizens interested in a question on the ballot or interested in preserving the purity of elections and in guarding against abuse of the elective franchise,” primary candidates, and “independent candidates in general elections” to appoint poll watchers. Poll watchers must be at least 17 years old, they must be identified to the election day at least 2 days in advance. Parties and citizens organizations can have two poll watchers at a polling place at the same time, but candidates are limited to having only one poll watcher on duty in a polling place at any time.

Section 2-7-104(e) provides for poll watchers to observe the counting of absentee ballots, as long as they do not leave the room during the actual counting or have electronic communications devices in the room with them. (No spies, please!)

Section 2-7-130 (“Locking of machine — Canvass and proclamation of votes on voting machines”) states: “After the polls have closed … the judges shall then lock and seal the voting machines against voting. The judges shall sign a certificate on the tally sheets…. The judges shall then open the counter compartment in the presence of the watchers and all other persons who are present, giving full view of all the counter numbers. One (1) of the judges, under the scrutiny of a judge of a different political party, in the order of the offices as their titles are arranged on the machine, shall read aloud in distinct tones the designating number and letter, if any, on each counter for each candidate’s name and the result as shown by the counter numbers. The judge shall in the same manner announce the vote on each question.”

After an election, candidates can get detailed results, according to Section 2-8-116 “Right of candidate to receive certified copies of poll lists and tally sheets”: “Each candidate has the right to have delivered to the candidate by the state election commission or the county election commission certified copies of all poll lists and tally sheets used in the counties in which the candidate ran, upon demand and payment of the regular legal fees.”

Most that is relevant to candidates and their supporters, but issues arise for voters, too. Voters need to remember photo ID, due to Tennessee’s new laws, and Oak Ridge Today reports that people who vote at Jefferson Middle School will vote tomorrow in the front lobby instead of the gym, as the gym floor is being refinished.


How to vote on the “retention of judges”?

I’ve been asked for advice on whether or not to retain the two Tennessee appellate court judges listed on the August election ballot. I don’t know anything good, bad, or indifferent about either of them, but I’m voting FOR keeping them in office because I believe the state’s high courts should be independent of politics. Their decisions should based on their interpretation of the law, not on what’s popular.

Some years ago, after Justice Penny White got removed from the Tennessee Supreme Court, I concluded that those of us who support an independent judiciary need to vote FOR retention of judges unless we know something that causes us to want to remove a particular judge. Many voters skip over the judge retention items on the ballot, which makes it easier for narrow political interests to target specific judges (like Penny White) for removal for “not making the right decisions”. Thus, a FOR vote is a vote for a judicial system that is not controlled by politics.


HB 0368/SB 0893 is harmful to the interests of Oak Ridge and Tennessee

My email to State Senators Randy McNally and Ken Yager:

As a scientist and an elected official in the city of Oak Ridge, which trades on its scientific reputation, I urge you both to vote against SB 0893, the “critical thinking” bill.

Professional science teachers and the scientific community as a whole correctly interpret this as a bill to legitimize the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, and other non-science-based worldviews as science, by relabeling the real science as “debate”. (Science teachers already can and do discuss the fact that scientific teaching may be at odds with what children have learned at home or in Sunday school — passing a new law won’t help them.)

Mere discussion of this proposed legislation is making Tennessee a laughingstock in the scientific community, both nationally and globally. Passing it will do real harm to the ability of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee to continue to represent ourselves as leaders in science and technology. Please vote against this, in the interest of the economic future of the city of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee.


Voter identification requirements in Tennessee

This is “to all Tennessee voters” from the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge:

A new law passed by the Tennessee State Legislature requires that registered voters present a GOVERNMENT ISSUED photo identification in order to vote. There are about 500,000 Tennessee citizens who do not have a valid photo ID and will be turned away from the polls, if they come to vote. Of these about 130,000 registered Tennessee voters do NOT have a photo on their driver’s license. Registered voters who do NOT have a photo on their driver’s license or a passport (an expired license or passport will do) or other government issued photo ID, may visit their local Department of Motor Vehicles OR their County Clerk for a free photo ID, (by the way, a college ID or other non-government issued ID will not be accepted). If you need assistance with this issue, contact the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge at telephone: 865.685.5989 and E-mail: lwvor@comcast.net. Elections in 2012 are March 6, August 2, and November 6.


Government transparency meets technology limitations

Today I went online to file my annual “Statement of Interest” with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, but found myself colliding with a dysfunctional software interface. The Statement of Interest is supposed to provide some transparency in Tennessee government. All elected officials and candidates for elected office are required to disclose their financial interests and those of spouses and minor children, including sources of income, investments, and loans.

There’s a website where officials can file their disclosures and where anybody can see the reports that have been filed. In the past, my biggest challenge in filing was remembering my user ID and password. This year, I was able to dredge them up and log in, only to find that there is no visible mechanism for me to “File a Statement” (the help page says I should click on a button with that label, but I can’t see any such button). I can see my reports from past years, and apparently I could amend my report for last year, but I can’t file a new report for 2012, which state law requires me to do before January 31. Technology, including the Internet, smart phones, and social media, is a marvelous tool for improving government transparency and enhancing interaction between citizens and government, but it can be easily defeated by apps that don’t work properly. I see that a few other area officials have managed to file 2012 disclosures, and I’ve sent an email to Nashville to describe my problem, so I’m hopeful that my problems will be resolved well before the filing deadline.

Looking at the instructions for filing (which are a lot more detailed and informative than they were when I had to file a disclosure, several years ago) and looking at other officials’ reports, I’m led to think that it was far easier to pass a law mandate disclosure than it has been to implement it. Regarding income and investments, the original statute (about the only guidance we had the first year I filled this in) is fairly vague:

8-50-502.  Disclosure statements — Contents.

Disclosure shall be made of:

(1) The major source or sources of private income of more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), including, but not limited to, offices, directorships, and salaried employments of the person making disclosure, the spouse, or minor children residing with such person, but no dollar amounts need be stated. This subdivision (1) shall not be construed to require the disclosure of any client list or customer list;

(2) Any investment which the person making disclosure, that person’s spouse, or minor children residing with that person has in any corporation or other business organization in excess of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or five percent (5%) of the total capital; however, it shall not be necessary to state specific dollar amounts or percentages of such investments;

In contrast, the current guidance on the website is far more specific — and includes some items not obviously included in the statute. For example, the guidance now defines “private income” as a long list of items, including  bank interest, stock dividends, honoraria, research grants, royalties, and “retirement income” (pensions and annuities) — none of which are obviously indicated by the language of the statute. Skimming through the disclosures filed by other officeholders in our local area, I concluded that it has been confusing for people to figure out what to report — for example, a couple of people who everyone knows to be receiving pensions did not mention their pensions on their forms, very likely because “retirement income” wasn’t on the list the first time they filed the form.

I guess that “transparency” works only as well as the guidance — and, in 2012, the software.