Guest column: Oak Ridge—a city teetering—which way will it go?

Bob Eby

Bob Eby

By Bob Eby

Friday, June 20

This week, I experienced great joy and significant sadness. The joy was being with my daughter and son-in-law as she birthed our first grandchild and we brought her home from the hospital in California. It was because I was with them during this joyous time that I missed last Monday night’s City Council meeting, but I did watch it live through Internet streaming (technology is great!). It was during that time that I felt sadness and disappointment. I realized that this wonderful community I have known for 50 years now balances on a tipping point, to fall on a downward spiral or gradually move forward with a great and dedicated effort toward prosperity. Why do I say this?

Last year, the Board of Education hired a new superintendent who brought with him much energy and a vision to re-establish the Oak Ridge Schools to its premier status as not only the number one school district in the State of Tennessee but also the premier district in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the country. The Board fully supported the vision, though we were recommending a three-year roll-out, which we felt was more realistic and would allow opportunity to adjust the implementation as we and the staff worked together to achieve our goals.

With their recent action, the City Council not only chose not to support this vision, but they very likely have failed to provide our teachers and associated staff the recognition they so deserve with any funding for their first raise (2 percent) in four years. City Council does plan to provide city-employeed staff with a raise. I think it is only right that all employees of our community receive a raise. All school staff and city employees are equally deserving of this recognition of their value to Oak Ridge. [Read more...]

In final vote, City Council again rejects tax increase for schools

Oak Ridge City Council Budget Meeting

The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday again said “no” to a property tax rate increase to give more money to Oak Ridge Schools. Council is pictured above during a June 9 budget meeting.

 

Note: This story was last updated at 11:15 a.m. June 17.

Two last-minute attempts to pass smaller-than-requested tax increases for the Oak Ridge Schools failed on Monday, and the City Council voted 4-2 to approve a budget that does not raise taxes in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The decision to not raise taxes for the seventh year in a row came after a parade of residents in two meetings this month asked Council to fully fund the schools. Many said they moved here because of the schools, and they said the educational system is Oak Ridge’s primary asset. School teachers, administrators, and school board members also said they support a greater investment in the schools.

“Flatline budgets will eventually produce flatline results,” said Steve Reddick, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School and co-president of the Oak Ridge Education Association.

The schools had requested $17.9 million from the city, but the no-tax-increase budget lowered that amount to $14.6 million. School officials had previously said they will have to “go back to the drawing board” and make cuts if Council did not approve the tax rate increase. It’s not clear yet what cuts might be made. The Oak Ridge Board of Education could discuss changes to the school system’s budget, which was approved in May, during a Monday evening meeting.

[Read more...]

In first vote this month, Council rejects schools request for tax increase

Oak Ridge City Council Budget Meeting

The Oak Ridge City Council rejected the school system’s request for a 37-cent tax rate increase on Monday, instead voting in the first of two votes this month to keep the tax rate steady for the seventh year in a row.

Note: This story was last updated at 9:55 a.m. June 10.

In the first of two votes this month, the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday rejected a request from school officials for a 37-cent tax rate increase that would, among other things, help fund a technology initiative meant to eventually provide an electronic learning device or tablet to all students.

Council member Charlie Hensley said the tax increase would be the largest in the city’s history, and it came in late in the budget process.

The property tax rate is now $2.39 per $100 of assessed value. The increase would push it to $2.76, and it could cost the owner of a $200,000 home another $15 per month.

“I was looking to support a tax increase, but the one that we got asked for is really, really high,” Hensley said.

There was a two-part vote on the budget on Monday. The first reduced the amount transferred to the schools to roughly $14.6 million, which was about $3.3 million less than the school board had requested, and it kept the tax rate steady for the seventh year in a row. The vote on that amendment was 5-2, with Hensley and Council member Chuck Hope voting no. [Read more...]

City to use traffic camera money for parking lot work at Blankenship Field

Red-light Camera at Oak Ridge Turnpike and New York Avenue

The Oak Ridge City Council agreed last week to use $180,000 in traffic camera money for improvements to the lower parking at Blankenship Field.

 

The Oak Ridge City Council agreed last week in a 5-2 vote to use $180,000 in traffic camera money for improvements to the lower parking lot at Blankenship Field, which is used for football games and high school graduation.

The request from Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan was reviewed at a City Council work session on April 28.

The work could include resurfacing work at the lower parking lot and access to the lower levels and visitors bleachers under the American with Disabilities Act. The project has been reviewed by the city staff, and it could include resurfacing, ADA improvements, handicapped parking, and new pavement and striping.

The work would complement a project to replace the demolished visitors bleachers at Blankenship Field, a $455,000 project that was unanimously approved by the Oak Ridge Board of Education in March. The bleachers had been deemed unsafe, and school officials are hoping to replace them before the first home football game on Aug. 29. The school board agreed to use the school system’s fund balance to pay for the replacement bleachers. [Read more...]

Lee keeps seat on housing board despite Council member’s removal request

Anne Garcia Garland, Trina Baughn, and Chuck Hope

The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday rejected a request to remove resident Joe Lee from a city housing board. Pictured above at left is Council member Anne Garcia Garland, who made the request. Also pictured are Council members Trina Baughn and Chuck Hope.

Note: This story was last updated at 11:20 p.m.

Those who wanted to remove Joe Lee from a municipal housing board said he had shown contempt for Oak Ridge City Council members, insulted traffic camera critics, embarrassed the city, and bullied others.

But those who wanted to keep him on the board said Lee ought to be given a second chance. They said he had performed well on the board—the Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals—particularly when considering the city’s code violation cases against the Applewood Apartments.

On Monday, the Oak Ridge City Council rejected the request to remove Lee from the board. The proposal failed in a 2-4 vote.

Voting in favor of the removal were Council members Anne Garcia Garland and Trina Baughn. Voting against it were Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller and Council members Charlie Hensley, Chuck Hope, and David Mosby. [Read more...]

Council does not extend traffic camera contract

Traffic Camera at Oak Ridge Turnpike and New York Avenue

The Oak Ridge City Council did not extend the traffic camera contract with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. of Phoenix, Ariz., on Monday, and the current five-year contract expires April 21.

Note: This story was last updated at 8:30 a.m. March 25.

After five years, some vigorous opposition, and a few contentious meetings, the traffic cameras in Oak Ridge will be removed. The Oak Ridge City Council did not extend the five-year contract with the camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, on Monday.

The vote to extend the contract for two years with a few changes was 3-4.

Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan, Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller, and Council member Charlie Hensley voted in favor of the extension. Council members Trina Baughn, Anne Garcia Garland, Chuck Hope, and David Mosby voted “no.” The current contract expires April 21.

Among the proposed changes, if an extension had been granted, were mobile units, different camera locations, and a new revenue split between the city and Redflex.

[Read more...]

School Board, City Council resolve high school debt dispute

Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education

A proposal to resolve a dispute over sales tax revenues and high school debt appeared to have majority support during a non-voting joint work session of Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education on Friday.

Despite opposition from a few residents and municipal officials, the Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education have resolved a dispute over Anderson County sales tax revenues and debt payments for the $66 million renovation of Oak Ridge High School.

The dispute, which started several years ago, centered on how to use the Oak Ridge school system’s portion of Anderson County sales tax revenues generated by a tax increase approved by county voters in a 2006 referendum. School officials had argued that they could keep their share of the revenues generated in the county outside of Oak Ridge, while city officials had said all the revenues, whether collected inside the city or outside of it, should be used for high school debt payments.

A resolution unanimously approved by the school board in February and the City Council in a 5-2 vote on Monday, March 3, allows the schools to keep its portion of the new Anderson County revenues collected outside the city. However, the resolution spells out how the money has to be spent: on technology enhancements, debt reduction, capital repairs and equipment, and grant matches and innovative educational projects. [Read more...]

Council postpones traffic camera vote

Red-light Camera at Oak Ridge Turnpike and New York Avenue

The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday postponed a decision on whether to extend or terminate a five-year contract with its traffic camera vendor.

Note: This story was last updated at 11:40 a.m. March 4.

The Oak Ridge City Council postponed a vote on traffic cameras on Monday. Council had been expected to either extend the five-year contract with the camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. of Arizona, or terminate it.

But council member Chuck Hope had to leave unexpectedly, and it wasn’t clear that there would be a majority to either extend the contract for two years or end it. That meant that both resolutions could have failed in 3-3 votes.

Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the contract could now be discussed during a March 24 special meeting or during the regular April meeting. But the current contract expires April 21. [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...]

City, school officials endorse resolution of sales tax, high school debt dispute

Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education

A proposal to resolve a dispute over sales tax revenues and high school debt had majority support during a non-voting joint work session of Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education on Friday.

Note: This story was updated at 1 p.m.

It hasn’t been approved yet, but a majority of city and school officials on Friday said they support a proposal that would resolve a long-running dispute over whether to use some sales tax revenues collected in Anderson County to help pay for renovations of Oak Ridge High School.

The dispute has centered on how to use a portion of new sales tax revenues collected in Anderson County outside of Oak Ridge under a May 2006 referendum. School officials had argued they could keep that portion of the revenues, but municipal leaders had said the money should be used to help pay down the debt on the $66 million renovation of the high school.

The amount of money in question is in the range of $250,000 to $300,000 annually, although the total varies from year to year. [Read more...]

City officials clash over Secret City Festival spending costs

Rick Springfield at Secret City Festival

The Rick Springfield concert at the Secret City Festival in June was the largest ever for the annual festival, an organizer said.

Debate over the costs of the Secret City Festival—and whether the city can afford a $160,000 “party” every year—was briefly renewed again on Monday.

The sometimes-rancorous debate came up as the Oak Ridge City Council considered whether to approve two resolutions laying the financial foundation for the June 2014 festival.

Early in the debate, Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn moved to reallocate the Secret City Festival money and use it instead for a school resource officer in each middle school, or two SROs total.

But Council member Charlie Hensley said Baughn was essentially asking the city to take money it would collect from festival sponsors and use it instead for SROs.

“I think that’s fraudulent,” Hensley said. [Read more...]

Council agrees to buy car wash to build sewer system tank

Mullins Car Wash

The Oak Ridge City Council has approved the purchase of Mullins Performance Car Wash in south Oak Ridge to allow the city to build a sewer system holding tank.

A car wash in south Oak Ridge could soon be replaced by a sewer system holding tank.

The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday voted 5-1 to buy the car wash, owned by businessman Terry Mulllins, for $125,000.

The land is at the southern gateway to Oak Ridge, near the intersection of Scarboro Road and South Illinois Avenue. The city agreed to buy the property so workers can place the proposed tank, officially called an equalization basin, farther away from the busy intersection and make it less visible. The intersection is used by thousands of drivers every day, including workers at the Y-12 National Security Complex.

The tank is one of three equalization basins that the city plans to build in order to comply with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order that requires Oak Ridge to repair all sewer system overflows by September 2015. [Read more...]