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city budget

City budget time

It’s FY 2011 budget time for the Oak Ridge City Council. Although I’ve attended myriad meetings of the Council Budget & Finance Committee, I face a stack of budget reading: City budget and Schools budget — and audit report for FY 2009. The Council audit committee meets Monday at noon, and Council meets that same evening at 7 for a public hearing and the first vote on the budget.

This is a tough budget. No property tax increase and no layoffs, but also no money for employee pay increases or for a variety of items that department heads say their organizations need. In spite of that, total City spending will go up, mostly because of higher payments into the state retirement fund, to help make up for investment losses in the last couple of years. (This is one more opportunity for the public — especially our kids — to pay for the mistakes of investment bankers…)

Things look worse for the schools. Although the school board’s budget asks for a 3.5% increase from the City general fund (that’s more than the increase being proposed for city government), their budget cuts a bunch of positions, particularly for teacher assistants. That’s a shame, as I think that teacher assistants in the earliest grades are hugely important for kids. Like the city government, the schools face a big increase in retirement contributions. On the other hand, the schools are planning to give some raises to staff: there are step increases for teachers who are eligible (about half the teachers) and they are budgeting for a teacher bonus (if the state declares a bonus for staff positions covered by the state Basic Education Program, Oak Ridge will give the same bonus to staff whose positions aren’t in the BEP). School finances have a way of improving after the city budget is passed — if things work out like they have in recent years, the school budget picture will get slightly better in June or July. Maybe the state won’t declare that bonus, or maybe the final state education budget will be more generous than currently projected…

One feature of the budget that’s disappointing for a lot of us is the fate of that traffic camera revenue from FY 2010. People have a lot of excellent ideas for using that money for special initiatives to benefit the community, but it’s needed to plug a hole in the FY 2010 budget. The hole is largely due to two problems: (1) Property tax collections are lagging more than usual (that’s not all that surprising) and (2) a new GASB accounting standard calls for revenue to be accounted for in the year it’s collected instead of the year it was due. That’s a sensible rule, and I’m surprised and disappointed to learn that it’s not the way things have been done (apparently the City has previously claimed tax revenues when due, even if that’s years before they are collected). Unfortunately, though, the one-time accounting change has created a budget shortfall for the first year’s traffic camera money will fill.

Monday night, I expect more vigorous discussion of the budget than we’ve had in recent years. We’re likely to hear from members of the public who have been told (incorrectly) that it was City Council decided to cut those positions out of the school budget, several Council members are likely to propose cuts in specific items, and I won’t be surprised if one Council member asks for additional funding to hire several police officers.

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Use traffic enforcement camera money for one-time traffic-safety-related improvements

Taxi crossing elevated pedestrian crosswalk

"Humped-zebra"-type crossing in Sydney, Australia.

Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Bob Fowler asked Oak Ridge City Council members for our views on use of the revenue from those controversial cameras that enforce speed limits and red-light compliance. His article on the answers that he got from five of us is in Friday’s paper. My full answer didn’t make it into the article, but I can provide it here:

City Council has never budgeted for this revenue, although some individual Council members have made public statements about its use that some residents now interpret as having been promises from the full Council.

I have told city staff that I think this money should be placed in a special revenue fund so that its expenditure can be tracked separately from the General Fund.  I want the money to be used for one-time improvements that will have long-term benefits for the safety of motorists and pedestrians in the city. It should not be used for recurring expenses because the city shouldn’t count on having this revenue forever, and it should be used for traffic safety because traffic safety is the stated purpose of the cameras.

Some possible uses are traffic-calming measures such as roundabouts and “humped zebra crossings” (that’s a British term for striped pedestrian crosswalks that are elevated above the road surface for greater visibility and to slow traffic), new walk light signals, additional signs to alert drivers to the speed limit, and more stop signs to slow down the drivers who speed through residential neighborhoods on streets like Outer Drive. Also, there is a federal mandate requiring cities to upgrade the reflectorization on all street signs and pavement markings within the next few years — I think that would be an appropriate use for traffic camera money.

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City Council business on May 4 – two big items

There are two particularly big items on Monday evening’s City Council agenda.

One is first reading on the City budget for FY 2010. The draft budget is on the City website (there’s a prominent link on the main page), and paper copies are in the public library or available from staff at the municipal building. The City Council also needs to decide whether to fund the school board’s request.

The other hot item is proposed rezoning on the Centennial Village property near Edgemoor Road.  Council approved this on first reading several months back, conditioned on the prospective developer returning with a revised proposal with less density in single-family residential portions and minimization of tree cutting and land grading in those areas. The prospective developer (John Chilton) withdrew his proposal
before City Council’s second reading on the rezoning, so no final action
was taken.

Now a revised proposal has been submitted to the City, and a vote
(second reading on the rezoning) is scheduled for the May 4, 2009, City
Council meeting. The new proposal includes revised drawings and a
revised set of conditions for development. City staff is recommending
approval.

Council members particularly want to make sure that residents who previously
expressed concern about this development are aware that this matter is
before Council again — and have a chance to evaluate the new
proposal and express your views. The new proposal is outlined in the
City Council agenda package (available online) and a copy of the revised master plan has been made
available for public review in the City Clerk’s office (please call the
office ahead of time at 425-3411 if you want to stop in to review it).
Additionally, Mr. Ray Evans (who worked with Mr. Chilton on the new
proposal) has offered to talk or meet with residents to discuss the
proposal.

I look forward to hearing people’s views about the revised proposal — and
please pass the word to your friends and neighbors.

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Impressive statistics from the Oak Ridge Fire Department

At Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council Budget and Finance Committee, fire chief Mack Bailey shared some statistics that reminded me why it makes sense to live in Oak Ridge. Per capita fire losses per capita in our city are only about 1/3 of the average in the southeastern U.S. (just $15 to $25 per year, versus about $65 in the region) and well below the national average of $50 per year. Also, he said that our Fire Department makes 3 times as many runs as is typical for a town our size — when people call for help, the ORFD shows up to come to their aid.

So this is what we get from the taxes we pay for our professional fire department: efficient fire prevention and response services that help minimize fire losses, plus a helpful bunch of people who will be there when we need them, whether it’s a fire, a medical emergency, or the proverbial cat stuck up a tree.

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Cedar Hill playground is alive and well as Fort Kid fades away

Children playing on the Cedar Hill Park Playground. Photo on http://www.easttennesseewildflowers.com.The morning news on WUOT included a report that the City of Knoxville is phasing out the popular Fort Kid playground near the World’s Fair site. It’s going to be replaced by a new playground on the Fair site, apparently one of the modern plastic and steel variety.

Fortunately for fans of amazing wooden playgrounds designed by local kids, the Cedar Hill Park Playground in Oak Ridge is not going away. The Cedar Hill playground (built in 1987) was the first of these wooden playgrounds in the Knoxville metro area, designed and built by community volunteers with the advice of the Robert Leathers organization, and soon it may be the only one.

The kids who designed the Cedar Hill playground as elementary school students are now well into adulthood, and last year the Recreation and Parks Department told the City Council budget committee that the playground is showing its age and needs continuing repairs, but it’s still open for the enjoyment of all.

The playground photo is from Kris Light’s website. See more of her photos of Cedar Hill at EastTennesseeWildflowers.com.

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