Guest column: School safety update

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

Since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Oak Ridge Schools and the Oak Ridge Police Department (ORPD) last August, a number of significant safety improvements have occurred within our schools including physical security upgrades, leadership adjustments, and increased police presence.

As you may know, this time last year, we had only one School Resource Officer (SRO) covering our entire school district. Now we have two full time SROs, two Support Services Unit (SSU) officers manning satellite offices, and the Adopt-a-Cop program, which provides officer time in all of our schools via daily check-ins. A third satellite office is in the works as ORPD Chief Jim Akagi and Superintendent Bruce Borchers are presently working on stationing an SSU officer at Robertsville Middle School.

Chief Akagi recently invited me to join our SROs on a walk-along at the high school to personally observe the impact of these changes. He also encouraged me to tag along with our S.W.A.T. team during a threat assessment exercise. I took him up on both offers and, as a result, am sharing what I learned. [Read more...]

Guest column: The Oak Ridge High School debt chronicles

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

The Oak Ridge High School Debt Chronicles—How a $40 Million Project Will Cost Taxpayers Over $126 Million (So Far) 

It appears that the nearly three-year long debate between the Oak Ridge City Council and the Board of Education (BOE) over who owes what on the high school renovation project—the single largest financial expenditure that this city has ever made—is about to be resolved once and for all (or so some hope). To many, this will provide a welcomed relief. For all, it will once again extend and increase a debt obligation far beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Just over one week after the initial public revealing, council will vote on a resolution to end the debate on the high school mortgage issue. The root problem that this resolution will address is not ambiguity in the 2004 referendum or in any “gentlemen’s agreements.” No, the reason that this resolution is necessary, according to the fifth “Whereas,” is “changing community economics and increasing educational needs.”  The need for this resolution, which will violate the original understanding and intent of the 2004 referendum, boils down to an implied need by the Oak Ridge schools for more money.

If passed, this resolution will allow the BOE to retain the portion of the half-cent sales tax revenues collected outside of the City of Oak Ridge and will accomplish the following: [Read more...]

Guest column: A successful Oak Ridge Mall project

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

Note: This is a copy of a Nov. 14 e-mail from Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn to Anderson County Commissioners and Mayor Terry Frank.

Honorable Mayor Frank and County Commissioners:

Like you and all of our citizens, I recognize the need for the successful redevelopment of the Oak Ridge Mall property. My research, to include discussions with various city officials and partners from their past projects, has me convinced that if anyone can help us finally turn the mall around, it is Crosland Southeast.

The generation of added sales tax revenue from new retail is our highest priority in this venture. Not only do we desire more shopping options, but the financial health of our community is highly dependent upon new sources of revenue.

No one can guarantee that the anticipated sales tax will materialize nor is it realistic to expect such an assurance. However, there is one guarantee contained within this plan. Once demolition has begun, the terms of the tax increment financing (TIF) will be permanently secured, regardless of whether or not anything is built. The end result will lock in a 20-year freeze on the property tax collected by the city and the county. [Read more...]

Guest column: Council member proposes alternatives to raising water, sewer rates

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

On Sept. 9, your Oak Ridge City Council will likely vote to approve additional water and sewer rate increases. When combined with the last two increases, the average user’s bill will have spiked 62 percent in just 34 months. Subsequently, should council adopt the fully proposed schedule through 2019, most residents and businesses will be paying double what they were paying prior to the initial increase imposed in May 2012.

These increases are to pay for the $33 million of debt that the city incurred in the last two years in addition to a projected $15 million more that Public Works says is still needed. We are continuing to borrow without limits and without regard for your ability to pay such astronomical bills.

Much of this debt could have been reduced or avoided all together had your city government taken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency up on the many opportunities they gave us to make corrections. (See my Feb. 24 post at trinabaughn.com entitled, “The Rest of the EPA Mandate Story.”) Unfortunately, we’ve screwed up so many times that we were too fearful to pursue leniencies that are now being afforded to many cities across the nation. So, while others have 20-25 years to comply and can spread out costs to minimize the hit their ratepayers will take, Oak Ridge has just five years and is forcing the entire burden on its residents and businesses. [Read more...]

Guest column: Baughn lists budget-cutting proposals to reduce tax rate

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

During our May 13 and May 28 meetings, the Oak Ridge City Council will determine your property tax rate for the next year via our annual budget. Our decision will directly affect your personal finances. Of greater consequence, however, we will establish our city’s competitive position.

Currently, Oak Ridge has the third-highest property tax rate in East Tennessee at $2.39 when you add in the Anderson County rate of $2.35. Each penny of our rate equals approximately $90,000 of spending. We have a tremendous opportunity to make Oak Ridge more competitive and attractive to prospective residents and businesses without sacrificing our quality of life.

In addition to increasing our revenues (I’ve suggested converting select city-owned assets into taxable properties, eliminating tax abatements, and negotiating voluntary payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements), we must ensure the highest and best use of each and every penny you entrust to us.

During our deliberations, I will make the following motions to immediately reduce our tax rate and/or improve our marketability to outsiders: [Read more...]

Guest column: Strategizing a path to prosperity

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

The problem

This month, the Oak Ridge City Council will establish your property tax rate for 2014 via the approval of our annual city budget. And though it appears that taxes will remain flat, our excessive spending levels are unsustainable and continue to hinder our ability to compete with surrounding communities.

In spite of all the new developments happening as of late, if council approves the budget as proposed, residents and businesses will continue to feel the financial crunch for quite some time. Not only will we retain one of the highest property tax rates in the state, but we’ll also retain one of the largest per capita debt levels in the region. (At nearly $7,000 per person, we have more than four times that of Knox County residents and more than seven times that of Knoxville residents). A dozen more chicken places and grocery store relocations won’t make a dent in the average Oak Ridger’s bills.

If we are to make any kind of progress, we need a strategy that aims to increase revenue while reducing expenditures. This column will focus on increasing our revenue base. I will address budgetary inefficiencies and waste in a follow-up piece next week. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

Guest column: Researches EPA sewer order, says more work needed

Last month, Oak Ridgers were hit with a water/sewer rate increase for the second time in nine months to pay for $15 million worth of debt that you were told (incorrectly) was issued to cover a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate. On Monday night, City Council is preparing to approve another $18 million in debt for the same cause, which will result in subsequent rate increases.

A statement I received this weekend from one resident sums up the frustrations that so many of you have been sharing with me: “Utility rates (water, sewer, electrical, trash pickup, etc.) keep going up; the city and county property ‘double’ taxation is simply too much. It so happens that our group of friends and us discuss the idea of moving to other less costly vicinities nearby more often than before. We would strongly suggest that our city government start budgeting our expenditures with the money we have.”

[Read more...]

Guest column: Changing the economic development game in Oak Ridge

There’s no nice way to spin it: The results of our city’s bad decisions for the past decade are catching up with us.

In addition to having high debt and property taxes, our sales tax revenues continue to decline, we are exporting more than $727 million per year in U.S. Department of Energy payroll (1), and we have a comparatively stagnant population growth. Even with all the new restaurants opening, these projects won’t fully replace the revenue we’ve lost from the countless businesses that have closed up shop or left town for greener pastures.

Continuing down this path is not an option. Thankfully, our city manager understands this and wants to strategize a more competitive position for Oak Ridge. He is proposing that we change our approach to economic development (2) by finding other uses for the $1-2 million we’ve been spending annually on nearly 20 different external organizations like the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

[Read more...]

Guest column: Let’s work hard rather than ‘rubber stamping’ water, sewer debt

We are only a few days into 2013 and most of us have discovered that we will have to make do with less this year. Before January ends, Oak Ridgers will realize that fact again when they receive their water and sewer bills, which will reflect the second rate hike since last May.

But before you have a chance to see your newly increased bill, Oak Ridge City Council may take an action that will cause your rates to rise a third time before 2013 ends. On Jan. 14, City Council will vote whether or not to apply for two state loans totaling $18 million. This debt, in addition to a large portion of the $15 million issued since September 2011, will pay for work affiliated with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrative order that requires the city to stop sewer overflows.

All $33 million borrowed will be paid by Oak Ridgers through multiple increases in your water and sewer rates. The amount of those increases is not determined until after each round of debt is issued. In other words, the city first borrows on your behalf and then determines how much it will charge you without consideration for your ability to pay.

[Read more...]

Guest column: Does Oak Ridge have a revenue or spending problem?

We here in Oak Ridge are repeatedly told that we do not have a debt problem, we have a revenue problem. All of our issues can be solved simply by increasing our revenue. Translation: The city needs more of your money.

The truth is, revenues aren’t down. They are actually up by $55 million for the last 10 years.

The data shows that our root problem is not revenue-based but spending-based. Oak Ridge is the single highest taxed full-service city in the state. We have priced ourselves out of consideration, sight unseen, to new residents and businesses. Every year for the last decade, we have knowingly budgeted to spend more than we bring in (see tables below). How do we make up the self-created deficit every year? Simple. We incur debt, and we deplete reserves.

Over the last decade, over 21 million of your tax dollars have been spent in the name of economic and community development. This is in addition to the dozens of tax breaks that we’ve given to select businesses. Every way that there is to throw money at our problems, we have done it.

Yes, we have some recent developments that we can celebrate. But we need to be realistic about their impact. For each new store, how many have quietly closed up shop and left town? And how many years before we see the projected new revenues?

It is time for a serious strategy change. We cannot possibly expect to attract new residents and new businesses as long as the very people who live here say that they can no longer afford to stay. If we are to achieve any substantial progress, we have to become competitive. It is time to stop throwing money at our problems. There is only one way that city council can truly improve our economy and that is by leveling the playing field with our competitors by lowering our property tax rate, lowering our debt, and lowering our spending.

 

Ten Year Snapshot

2002

2012

Total Revenues

$118M

$173M

Total Expenditures

$135M

$179M

Total Debt

$104M

$186


City of Oak Ridge Budgeted Revenue and Expenditures

 

Revenues

Expenditures

2002

$118M

$135M

2003

$120M

$152M

2004

$126M

$134M

2005

$126M

$134M

2006

$131M

$177M

2007

$137M

$184M

2008

$145M

$184M

2009

$164M

$183M

2010

$172M

$179M

2011

$173M

$179M

2012

$173M

$179M

Source: City of Oak Ridge Final Budget for years 2002-2012

http://www.oakridgetenn.org/department/Finance/content.aspx?article=1853

Guest column: Oak Ridge needs debt policy, debt ceiling

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

At under 45 minutes, this month’s City Council meeting may have been the shortest meeting they’ve ever held. While it was a nice change from the normal three-hour meetings, I wonder why council didn’t take the opportunity to discuss anything of significance given our city’s various, not to mention serious, problems. After all, they are limited in how often they meet to accomplish anything. Yet, they were perfectly content to accomplish nothing.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about our city’s debt—a bill that is quickly approaching $200 million. I implored the city to develop a debt policy that would establish a debt ceiling, a debt reduction plan, and parameters for borrowing.

[Read more...]