One candidate seemed more willing than the other to use tax incentives to spur commercial development in Oak Ridge, but neither appeared ready to build a senior center.
A difference also emerged between the two Oak Ridge City Council candidates, Chuck Hope and Trina Baughn, on paying off the debt on the $66 million renovation of the city’s high school.
Hope, owner of Chuck’s Car Care Center, called the question over whether higher Anderson County sales tax revenues should be used to help pay that debt the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“That’s our biggest divide,” he said. Sales tax revenues in Oak Ridge need to be increased to help solve the problem, Hope said.
But Baughn, a communications professional, said voter intent was clear in a 2004 referendum that raised the Oak Ridge sales tax rate by a half-cent. Voters wanted to use that money to pay for the high school renovation.
School officials expected Anderson County to also raise its sales tax rate—effectively taking away some money from the city—and they expected the new county revenues to also be used to pay down the high school debt, Baughn said.
In the past year, Oak Ridge school officials have argued that they should be able to keep the portion of new revenues collected from the Anderson County sales tax rate increase—rather than passing on that money to the city for high school debt payments.
Hope was appointed to fill former Council member Tom Hayes’ seat after he resigned in June 2011. He and Baughn will face off in the Aug. 2 special election. The winner will then serve through the regular Nov. 6 City Council election, when Hayes’ term expires. Then, the winner of the Nov. 6 municipal election will serve a regular four-year term.
The two disagreed on the use of tax incentives during a Tuesday night candidates forum in Clinton that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge.
Hope said he has supported the use of tax increment financing, or TIF. A $625,000 TIF is being used to help build the Woodland Town Center, which will include an Aubrey’s restaurant and Panera Bread on South Illinois Avenue.
A TIF uses new property tax revenues generated at a site to pay for improvements.
“It is one of the tools that we have with economic development,” Hope said. He said tax abatements—temporary reductions in property taxes—are another.
But Baughn said she doesn’t support tax breaks or using public money for private projects except in very limited circumstances. She has supported two of 12 tax incentive packages in Oak Ridge, Baughn said.
“We’re essentially talking about public-private partnerships,” she said.
Baughn said Oak Ridge supports close to a dozen economic organizations, and they should assume the liability on behalf of the city for tax incentives if the proposals are indeed risk-free.
Neither candidate seemed willing to build a new senior center. For years, some residents have said the current senior center on Emory Valley Road is inadequate, and they say the city promised them a new home more than a decade ago.
“Quite honestly, right now, the answer is no,” Hope said in response to a question on whether the candidates support a new center, which could cost a few million dollars.
Given current economic conditions, seniors and the city need to adapt, Hope said. Accommodating them can be done at a much more reasonable cost, he said.
Baughn said many non-paying non-residents use the senior center, and it is only used by a small percentage of Oak Ridge residents.
At the very least, the senior center can stay where it is, she said. Alternatively, seniors could make greater use of the Oak Ridge Civic Center, Baughn said.