Guest column: ORCVB, Chamber funding should be reduced 50-100 percent, festivals outsourced

Note: This is an edited version of a letter submitted by Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn at a March 25 work session.

Mr. Watson and Fellow Council Members:

At our last retreat, I proposed that we each share our specific positions regarding the Economic Diversification Fund. A successful economic development strategy must focus on both retaining and increasing business and residents with a primary goal of establishing a more competitive financial position. For Oak Ridge, that means becoming a more affordable place to live and work. With that in mind, I present my point-by-point response to Mr. Watson’s Eight Point Economic Statement:

1) I support the city manager’s proposal to eliminate this fund and distribute the costs within the general fund if that distribution includes some reduction and/or reallocation of funds to the direct benefit of our taxpayers. Of the $1.4 million we currently spend, I recommend that we attribute half toward a reduction in the property tax rate (the equivalent of 7.7 cents). Such a reduction will benefit every existing and future business and home owner.

Given the tremendous impact of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate on our water and sewer rates, the only responsible action we can take with the $119,000 waterworks transfer is to apply it in a manner that minimizes future rate increases. The remaining $581,000 would still be a very generous amount to attribute to economic development when compared to our staunchest competitor who spends less than one-tenth that amount ($52,000 per year) for the same cause.

2) I support modifying the current tax abatement policy by making council the final approving authority on any and all payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements (PILOTs), tax increment financing (TIFs), or other tax incentives. As it stands, the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board has issued more than a dozen of these subsidies and is preparing to issue a second for the same business. They sit on a bank balance of more than $1 million that the city cannot access, and to date, we’ve no hard data to support the claim that these incentives have truly benefitted the tax-paying citizens and businesses who pay all of their taxes without protest.

If anything, these incentives lure in temporary tenants who move on once they’ve met their obligation. Farragut brought in the only Costco in the entire state without incentives. We should aim to attract long-term businesses that are more committed to the vitality of our city than how much they can save in the short term.

3) I agree that all future contracts should contain measurable benchmarks that clearly demonstrate Return on Investment (ROI). We have far too many organizations taking credit for any and all successes but none that take responsibility for our failures. This charade must end.

4) I neither agree nor disagree with the recommendation that the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau be brought in-house. Having served on the CVB board of directors for a year, I do believe that they are grossly overfunded and have yet to demonstrate any true ROI. Because the city is their sole source of funding, I would recommend a 50 percent reduction to about $200,000 with a stipulation that some of that funding be allocated for tangible tourism improvements, i.e., the rowing lane improvements cited in this year’s Capital Improvements Plan. A narrowed focus on those events that bring in the most overnight visitors should be factored into any contract. As it stands, the three largest attractions (rowing, Windrock, and the half marathon) are unaffected by CVB efforts.

5) I agree that capitalizing on the Uranium Processing Facility project should be our top economic development priority. I believe that the most important aspect of that initiative should be an emphasis on reducing the cost of doing business in Oak Ridge via a reduction in our property tax and fee structure.

6) I support the development of an internal economic development team that does not increase the city’s total number of full time employees (FTEs). Such a team should remain dynamic (via contracts) to avoid stagnation and myopic foresight. Additionally, we should be looking to reduce FTEs whenever attrition will allow given how heavily staffed we already are (compare our 396 FTEs to Maryville’s 300).

7) I support Mr. Watson’s recommendation that festivals, arts, events, and entertainment should be outsourced and funded by community sponsorships. We are blessed with a tremendously rich base of organizations that fill practically every imaginable art and entertainment need. Even if we were to lose some of the many free events that we’ve provided for in the past, Oak Ridge would still be flush with affordable art and entertainment opportunities.

8) I agree, in part, that Oak Ridge should continue to belong to some organizations that contribute to our goals. However, we should eliminate those that have competing interests and/or have proven ineffective. The Chamber of Commerce is the most heavily funded of all to the tune of $268,000 per year. This is outrageous, especially when compared to surrounding communities that have experienced significantly greater growth. Farragut pays $14,000 to their chamber, while Lenoir City pays even less at $7,050 per year.

I take issue with our chamber on a number of fronts. First is their treatment of some of their members. I’ve heard countless stories from past and present members that the chamber lures them in with great promises, only to hound them with requests for free or reduced services. This is an unacceptable way to treat anyone, especially dues-paying members, many of whom are struggling small businesses.

And even though they have no problem taking from taxpayers, the chamber denies meeting access to non-members. I recall being contacted by Mr. Hardy regarding the sign ordinance meeting they held a few months back. He wanted to clarify that non-members, even though affected by the chamber’s recommendations, would not be allowed to participate.

In addition to the $268,000 we give them, the city generously allows the chamber to occupy a prime piece of real estate for less than $600 per year. The value of that gift is exponentially compounded when you consider the property tax revenue we could be collecting if sold to a private developer.

Finally, and most importantly, our chamber has demonstrated no significant impact on our overall financial health. Furthermore, they cannot fairly fulfill their obligation to advocate for their members while simultaneously being so reliant on the city. It’s time they stand on their own merit and become self-sustaining like other chambers across the country. I support cutting the city’s contribution to the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce by 100 percent.

While I agree that City Council and senior community leadership hold some responsibility for economic development, we must be realistic about what government can impact within the framework of a free market. Our past attempts greatly exceeded our scope of influence, as Mr. Watson has pointed out. Those efforts have proven both unsuccessful and wasteful of taxpayer monies.

This council must ensure that we are making the best use of every single dollar entrusted to us. Part of that responsibility requires that we acknowledge and do something about the burden that we’ve placed upon our constituents. If we add to the 7.7 cents I referenced earlier what my fellow councilwoman Jane Miller has proposed (a 10 percent reduction in the general fund), we can save all taxpayers a total of 29 cents of their $2.39 property tax rate. That’s a 12 percent annual savings! That should be our goal, and I will personally strive to see it become a reality as there truly is no stronger marketing message than “Oak Ridge is cutting taxes!”

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  • Betty Roberts

    I want to know why you felt justified to storm out of the recent work session. You are an elected offical, youdont get to storm out of these meetings because things aren’t going your way. For goodness sake, how about growing up and acting like a grown up. I move for a recall of your seat.

    • C.Kelsey

      Bad grammar does not need to be repeated does it? It’s redundancy at it’s worst .

      • Betty Roberts

        Try and stay on topic…

        • C. Kelsey

          In your alleged post what would that have been ?

  • Betty Roberts

    I want to know why you stormed out of the recent work session? You are an elected offical. You dont get the option of storming out because you dont get your own way. Stop your pettyness and try and work with those around you. You have NOT WORKED in the real business world for a long time and its obvious that you dont work well with others. Especially those who are disagree you. Things will not improve in this town as long as your on council. I think we need a RECALL of your seat….

    • TJ garland

      Were you at the meeting Betty Roberts? You would have seen how Trina was cut off in mid sentence by Darryl Akins twice. I would have left the room also-after I called him an a$$4013.

  • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

    A voice of reason in the wilderness.

    I genuinely fear for your safety Trina. When you challenge the establishment you really have no idea how deep the corruption goes and what will be done to protect it.

    • James Howard

      I dont see anyone making threats here. Where is this coming from? Maybe if she stayed for the whole meeting she wouldn’t have need to give your opinion here…

    • Charlie Jernigan

      If she really believes your warning, I fear for her sanity.

      • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

        When you’ve watched your businesses burn, your property destroyed and a pistol pulled on family members in your front yard by drunken government officials, your opinion will be relevant.

        When you are “randomly selected” for IRS audits 6 out of 7 years following your exposure of DOE mercury spills, your opinion will be relevant.

        • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

          Frankly, I’ve already seen your own form of intimidation on this site when you not-so-subtly went after one of the commenters on another article after doing a background search on his property records.

          • Charlie Jernigan

            Was that you pretending to be an Oak Ridger again?

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            No. Ask Houtori.

            I don’t hide behind false names like some crackers I know.

          • johnhuotari

            I appreciate the comments from both Charlie and Denny. I also appreciate your use of humor in some of your comments.

            I would like to ask you both not to make the comment threads too personal, though. I’d generally like to stay away from comments that refer to where people live, unless it’s directly relevant to the story (and it’s hard to say in advance when that might be).

            Thank you both for your understanding and for reading Oak Ridge Today and participating in the discussion.

            John

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            John, I have been and will continue to be happy to comply with your rules of conduct in the forums. I appreciate the venue.

          • http://www.facebook.com/johnhuotari John Huotari

            Thank you, Denny. I appreciate your participation.

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            You seem to be pretty sure of yourself Chucky.

            I tell you what, howzabout we trade COR property tax bills this year? Deal?

          • TJ garland

            Wait Denny, I want to trade with him first.

          • John Clarkson

            So, Denny, if you have a City of Oak Ridge property tax bill, why did you feel it necessary to sign your letter to the editor in today’s Oak Ridger identifying that you live in the Marlow community?

            And Mr. Huotari, while you don’t seem to like being able to identify where people live, in this case, Denny started it by making false claims. Isn’t it appropriate to publish the truth?

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            John Clarkson, can one own property in two different places?

          • John Clarkson

            I prefer to use the property tax database. You don’t even own the property where you live. Prove me wrong. Tell all of us what property you own in the city of Oak Ridge. Then we can all see how it is listed by the Anderson County Property Assessor.

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            I’ll offer you the same deal I offered Chucky.

            Other than that I can’t see any reason to violate Mr. Huotori’s request.

          • Charlie Jernigan

            But John, a person might not own any property.

          • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

            Charlie I stand by my offer. You pay my COR property taxes and I’ll pay yours. Deal?

            I will have the contract drawn up. You have nothing to lose since I own nothing. Right?

          • http://johnhuotari.com John Huotari

            I’m trying to keep the commenting section hospitable for all commenters. I don’t want people to be hesitant to post comments here because they are concerned someone else might post where they live.

            People are free to post information about their own residency. But, in general, if they post information about where someone else lives, I’m likely to remove that comment.

        • http://www.facebook.com/denny.phillips.3956 Denny Phillips

          Mr. Johnson, I feel your pain.

          Some years back an ADA was stopped in Oak Ridge by a new officer for DUI and arrested. The arrest was quickly disposed of and the Attorney General ordered the police tapes of the stop sealed.

          My sister, then Chair of the AC Republican Party, appeared on the news asking for the release of the tapes in the interest of open government at 6 p.m.

          The following morning the she appeared on the morning news again…a story on a local Oak Ridge business that was burning down.

  • David A. Vudragovich

    The Chamber has a rather open standing policy on the $268,000 +/- issue. Heard it straight from Parker and he had the number handy. Stop by the Chamber, the Chamber matches the city money dollar for dollar. It is used for finding/bringing new business to Oak Ridge (not it’s operations). I just went looking through my email (could not find it) but they have a list of the businesses brought here (over the last 10 years I think) as a result of the Chamber. It also includes some other numbers such as number of jobs, etc. I will get it again on Monday and maybe people will quit spreading what is known as long standing rumors and start dealing in facts. After all, it takes a lot of work and energy to look up the Chamber’s phone number and make a call and ask “what happens with all the money you get from the city?” Come on people, are the rumors really that much more important than making a phone call for the truth? Cut the spin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.wells.7509 Aaron Wells

    Keep up the hard work Trina. Your ideas for our city are a breath of fresh air to many of us in town.

    • Curt Kelsey

      Always watch who they are trying to tackle,it’s usually the person carrying the ball and making forward progress .

  • Ida Farrar

    Council-woman Baughn while I agree with some of your statements I do believe that there was a breakdown in communication during the speaker’s discussion.

    Repeating the same question back to a person will most often give you the same answers. Rephrasing your question might have helped to clarify where the misunderstanding was coming from.

    I believe mistakes were made on both sides of the platform. The speaker apologized at the end of his discussion for the disturbance to the meeting he had caused and that he would be contacting you to apologize, which he did.
    In my personal opinion (which matters to no one but myself) I would not have left if I was you. The action was a topic of some amusement in the gallery that was there and on top of that it did not serve the populace of our town.

  • John Clarkson

    I don’t understand the comment about the PILOT program. To the best of my recollection, City Council has approved all PILOT incentives since 2010 (as they did last fall with the Alexander Inn). There’s even an article posted today (4/8) on this website stating “Also tonight, the City Council will consider approving a five-year, 100 percent tax break for Protomet”. Is Ms. Baughn that far out of touch?

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