Frustration increases, Council not pleased as Jackson Square work stretches into fall

Jackson Square Parking Lot Meeting

Oak Ridge municipal staff members and Mayor Warren Gooch met with Jackson Square merchants at Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Lab and Kitchen on Wednesday, July 29, to discuss the $1 million parking lot renovation, which is not yet finished but could be “substantially complete” by Sept. 15. (Photo by John Huotari/Oak Ridge Today)

 

One merchant said he’s lost more than $100,000 in sales. Another said she had to close her business. And a third has posted signs that express frustration with the pace of construction at Jackson Square.

At one time, there was hope that the $1 million parking lot renovation at Jackson Square would be complete by the Lavender Festival in mid-June. But that didn’t happen. Now, the latest construction schedule estimates that it will be “substantially complete” by September 15—in time for Taste of Anderson County—but not finished until the end of October.

Officials have said the primary delay has been with the interactive fountain that will be installed in the center of Jackson Square. It still hasn’t arrived, and officials have said it could take four weeks to install. On Monday, the contractor and her attorney said the fountain could arrive in Oak Ridge on Wednesday.

Even business owners who had an optimistic outlook earlier have lost their patience with the project, which is mostly funded with a state grant. Their primary frustrations: The work has taken much longer than expected, the schedule keeps getting extended, and there have been too many days when, they say, they’ve seen no signs of work. In the meantime, the parking lot in front of their stores was closed for months, and they believe that the construction fencing and orange barrels drove away some potential customers.

“Why can’t they finish this?” asked Jonathan Goldstein of The String Workshop.

“We’ve been nice long enough,” said Dean Russell, owner of Dean’s Restaurant and Bakery.

“I think our frustration is how many days we’ve seen nothing happening as our customer base declines,” said Steve Seivers, who has a law practice in the square, the city’s original town center.

On Monday, the Oak Ridge City Council joined the chorus of frustration. [Read more…]

Council could consider Secret City Festival changes, including move to fall

Secret City Festival Concert 2015

A concert crowd at the 2015 Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge. Concerts by the Marshall Tucker Band and Three Dog Night attracted the highest number of spectators in festival history. (Photo by Robert Welton)

 

The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday could consider changes to the Secret City Festival, including a possible move to the fall. The annual festival could be expanded into a celebration that could start in October and run through Veterans Day (November 11), last at least a week, and include the Secret City Festival.

It’s one of five changes recommended by the Special Events Advisory Task Force set up by City Council in February. Each Council member appointed a member of the task force, which was chaired by Council member Trina Baughn. The task force was expected to meet for six months and provide a recommendation to City Council by this month.

The City Council will need to consider an amendment to the Monday night agenda to formally include the recommended changes.

“The idea is not to limit the celebration to a single event, but to incorporate other activities over an expanded period of time that allow for greater participation by both patrons and various organizations within the community,” Baughn said in an August 5 memo to City Council. [Read more…]

Opinion: Responding to Baughn, Hardy says Chamber a voice for business concerns

Parker Hardy

Parker Hardy

By Parker Hardy

Note: This is a response to a July 9 column by Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn.

Let me begin by expressing my dismay at the continued war of words fueled by “guest columns” such as Ms. Baughn’s. The practice can be divisive, driving wedges of conflict into community unity that is crucial to Oak Ridge’s future. At worst, it can be destructive, damaging the morale and reputations of  volunteers, elected and appointed officials, professional staff, local organizations, and community institutions engaged in moving our city in positive directions. I am concerned that it also may discourage residential and business prospects that are considering locating in our city.

The Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce is a voice for business concerns, and it is sad that a public official thinks there’s something wrong with such a traditional role and such a fundamental right. In our almost 70 years of existence, we have built a broad membership base, most of which are small businesses. We are proud that our diverse membership ranges from local “mom-and-pop” companies, to respected professionals, to major corporations in the community and the region. In fact, if your readers will visit our online membership directory, perhaps they will recognize and support the hundreds of companies, individuals, and organizations that are investing in Oak Ridge through support for chamber initiatives. Yes, we count not-for-profits, government contractors, and out-of-town companies among our members. I believe they deserve praise, not punishment, for supporting our mission to enhance Oak Ridge’s economic vitality and business climate, and to provide business, leadership, and advocacy opportunities for our members. [Read more…]

City budget raises trash fee, provides more for city infrastructure

Oak Ridge City Council on July 28, 2015

The Oak Ridge City Council raised the trash pickup fee by $3.50 during a special budget meeting on Monday, July 27, 2015, and the Council set aside an extra $260,000 for capital projects such as buildings and schools. (Photo by John Huotari/Oak Ridge Today) 

 

Note: This story was last updated at 10:05 a.m. July 28.

There will be a $3.50 increase in the monthly trash fee, and more money—$260,000—will be reserved for capital projects such as buildings and schools, while city officials are not expected to change the new property tax rate provided by the state after five-year reappraisals completed this year.

The trash fee will increase from $7 to $10.50 per month. That change is expected to provide another $335,000 per year in revenue.

The new tax rate—state officials call it a tax-neutral rate—is $2.52 per $100 of assessed value. It was approved in the first of two readings by the Oak Ridge City Council during a three-hour special meeting on Monday. The second reading hasn’t been scheduled yet, but the meeting is expected soon. [Read more…]

Oak Ridge may not increase tax rate above reappraisal change

Oak Ridge City Council 2014

The Oak Ridge City Council is pictured above in 2014. (Photo courtesy City of Oak Ridge)

 

Property tax rates are already expected to go up in local cities and counties because of an unprecedented drop in property assessments.

And additional increases have been approved or are anticipated in budgets that have already passed in Anderson County, Clinton, Oliver Springs, Roane County, and Rocky Top.

Oak Ridge could be the exception. The city could see an increase in the certified tax rate (state officials call it a tax-neutral rate) from $2.39 per $100 of assessed value to $2.52.

So far, no Oak Ridge City Council members have publicly endorsed raising taxes beyond the change in the tax-neutral rate required by the five-year reappraisals completed this year.

Four City Council members, a majority of the seven-member body, said during a budget work session on Tuesday that they will support the $2.52 tax-neutral rate or that it’s important to stay at that rate for now, until they have more information. [Read more…]

Guest column: Won’t support tax increase, urges residents to prevent further waste

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

Sixteen years ago, Partners for Progress successfully lobbied the city to spend over $15 million of your (the taxpayer) money to launch a major development on the West End of Oak Ridge. The promises were enough to make people starry eyed. There was to be a picturesque subdivision of nearly 4,000 homes along with an industrial complex that, when all was said and done, would produce 17,000 jobs, $1 billion in payroll, and nearly $13 million in additional annual property taxes.

Three years ago, many of the same folks behind Partners for Progress began a similar PR campaign touting the sale and redevelopment of the mall. “More shopping choices are coming!” they proclaimed. To date, the city has approved the use of $1.5 million of your money for infrastructure costs and a $13 million TIF (tax increment financing), which will  suppress property tax revenue at current levels for the next 30 years. In other words, no matter what happens, the 64 acres will continue, as it has for the last decade, to produce only 10 percent of its original value because any increases will be used to repay the TIF loan. Developers and city officials claim that the project will produce $1 million (or 20 percent) in additional sales tax revenue to the city, though, historically, the national retail sales growth rate range is between -11.51 percent to +11.18 percent. Even if we find a way around the notoriously stringent Wal-Mart non-compete covenants and actually bring in real retail, it is absolutely impossible to expect these projections to materialize, since, even in the best of times, we’ve not seen half that level of growth. [Read more…]

Merchants frustrated with progress at Jackson Square; protest sign posted

Jackson Square Parking Lot Renovations Sign

There has been some frustration among merchants at Jackson Square about not being able to use the partially paved parking lot while they wait for renovations to be completed. This protest sign saying “Free Our Parking Lot!!” was posted on Wednesday.

 

Merchants have grown frustrated with the pace of renovations at Jackson Square, and on Wednesday a protest sign was posted. “Free Our Parking Lot!” said the sign, which has since been removed.

For now, the parking lot inside Jackson Square remains closed off behind construction fencing as work continues on a $1 million renovation mostly funded by a state grant awarded in 2012.

But merchants wonder why they can’t use the parking lot since it was used for the Lavender Festival on June 20.

Compounding their frustration is the closure of the lower parking lot at Blankenship Field. It’s one of two lots on the north side of Broadway Avenue and Jackson Square. Employees at nearby businesses who used to park in the Blankenship Field lot are now using the second lot, the one used by the Farmers Market, reducing the parking spaces available there, one merchant said.

The Blankenship Field work, which was approved by the Oak Ridge City Council in June, is also causing concern for the Farmers Market. The Farmer Market’s vendors set up in the second parking lot on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and they now don’t have parking available at either the Blankenship Field lot or inside the Jackson Square lot. [Read more…]

TBI not investigating Akagi, POST ends its inquiry, DAs say no violation

James T. Akagi

James T. Akagi

Note: This story was last updated at 8:53 a.m. July 2.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is not investigating, two district attorneys said there was no violation, and the state agency that certifies police officers has completed its activities, officials said Wednesday.

That would appear to end the inquiry of Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi by the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, or POST. In April, POST asked three authorities, including one federal official and two state officials, whether Akagi had violated state and federal laws by possessing a firearm after being issued an ex parte order of protection during divorce proceedings in Blount County three years ago.

The response from all three officials has been “no,” according to letters sent to POST.

Oak Ridge Today reported on the response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as reported by Akagi’s attorney Tasha Blakney, on Tuesday. The two state officials—Dave Clark, district attorney general in the Seventh Judicial District in Clinton, and Mike Flynn, district attorney general in the Fifth Judicial District in Maryville—sent their response to POST on Wednesday.

“The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and our offices have concluded that based on what you submitted, there never has been an order of protection issued against Chief Akagi and thus no violation of an order of protection could have occurred,” Clark and Flynn said in a letter to Ray Farris, assistant director of the POST Commission. “Any criminal investigation in this case is closed.” [Read more…]

Secret City Festival growing, evolving, but not ending, officials say

Secret City Festival World War II Re-enactment 2015

A Flak 88 firing during a Battle of Normandy re-enactment at the 2015 Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge. (Photo by Rob Welton)

 

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

A rumor that circulated widely this month said this was going to be the last year for the Secret City Festival.

But city officials said it’s premature to say that.

It is true that a Special Events Advisory Task Force has been studying changes to the annual festival, including moving it from June and making it into an expanded celebration in the fall, starting in October and continuing through Veterans Day (November 11). It could be renamed the Secret City Celebration, implemented by a new nonprofit expected to become self-sustaining within five years, and add events while continuing to include the Secret City Festival.

At a Wednesday evening meeting, Task Force members said many of the current festival activities could continue, including music, World War II re-enactments, historical displays, and children’s activities. But they also said there could be opportunities for new partnerships with other organizations, including Wounded Warriors and Oak Ridge Playhouse. And it’s not clear that the Secret City Festival would continue to be a two-day event.

Task Force members say they’re hoping to help create something bigger and better. [Read more…]

Cocke County says case closed after widow releases suicide note, but parents dispute note

Alexander John Heitman

Alexander John Heitman

Officials say it was suicide. But the parents are skeptical.

So questions linger almost four years after Alexander John Heitman, 29, of Knoxville, was found dead in Cocke County after being reported missing by Oak Ridge Schools. Heitman reportedly died on Tranquility Ridge Drive outside Newport on July 25, 2011. Officials said it was suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

But Heitman’s parents, Don and Annette Heitman of Adams, Wisconsin, find it hard to believe. They aren’t the only ones. Some current and former Oak Ridge residents, including City Council member Trina Baughn, are also skeptical of the official cause of death.

Heitman’s widow, Kristie Heitman, is not. In February, she released a suicide note that she believes Alex, who was the supervisor of business and support services for Oak Ridge Schools, wrote the day before he died.

Neither is Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes. In March, he said the case is closed, and there is no reason to continue pursuing it. Investigators found no evidence that anyone else was involved, Fontes said.

But Don and Annette continue to seek answers. They started a website in October 2013 and used it to raise questions about the case. They’ve also asked for the death investigation to be re-opened, hired attorney Hugh Ward to help them, and won the support of Baughn and others. They’ve also asked the FBI to investigate. [Read more…]

Council to consider budget on Monday, Tuesday

They postponed a budget vote for one week, and the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday and Tuesday will resume those discussions. So far, the debate has included calls to raise the property tax rate to fund certain programs and other recommendations to keep the rate unchanged—or even lower it.

The budget will be discussed during a non-voting work session at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15, in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Training Room. The Council could then vote on it in the first of two readings this month during a 7 p.m. meeting in the Municipal Building Courtroom.

Council will then discuss the budget in a second work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, in the Multipurpose Room at the Central Services Complex on Woodbury Lane. [Read more…]

Guest column: Council member offers summary of events related to ORPD investigation

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

By Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn

Given that there is some confusion over recent events, I offer the following summary about where we are, how we got here, and where we are headed with regards to the Oak Ridge Police Department investigation.

The ORPD has seen a total turnover rate of 45 percent in the last four years, having lost 34 of our 76 employees. Five of those individuals have departed in the last four months. Since February, all Council members have received communications from at least seven former officers, three current officers, and countless citizens expressing concerns about leadership and a potentially hostile work environment. Others have communicated anonymously citing similar concerns and attributing their anonymity to fears of retaliation.

On February 9, during a five-hour televised meeting, and in front of the largest audience any of us had ever seen, City Council formally committed to investigate the root causes behind the turnover, morale, and policy issues in the Police Department.

The resolution that was ultimately approved was brought forward by Council member Kelly Callison who stated that “We think that’s a broad, a very broad term that allows an investigator, an independent investigator to look at the issues that might be present…”  At the end of the meeting, councilmember Chuck Hope stated, “The investigation that we’ve come to an agreement among the seven of us was reached unanimously…there’s enough information that it warrants an investigation…”

During this same meeting, Council committed to ensure that the investigation would allow for the anonymity of all participants and would include both current and past employees. Mr. Callison also suggested that council select Municipal Technical Advisory Service, specifically Rex Barton, to perform the work. Council did not select MTAS at the time, but agreed to hold a special meeting to select an entity to conduct the investigation and define its parameters. Information regarding the other resolutions that Council rejected can be found here. [Read more…]