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.
In December, it appeared that council might actually achieve this. Instead, they settled for a watered-down version to meet a basic state requirement. They promised, though, that by the spring of 2012, they would begin working on a “real” debt policy.
Spring has come and gone, and summer is coming to a close. Council has yet to even discuss scheduling a discussion of a debt policy. Our debt is not a priority.
Should it be? Perhaps we should look at our borrowing history (for which we are still paying), to begin to answer that question.
In 1988, the city issued $10 million for street improvements and to renovate Willow Brook and Woodland elementary schools. Though we’ve yet to pay off this debt, we just spent another $1 million to correct structural issues at Woodland.
In 1989, they issued $5.4 million to build Glenwood Elementary School. This school is now so underused that Board of Education member Bob Eby has suggested the possibility of consolidating two schools into one. That same suggestion was floated last year as a possible solution to the structural issues at Woodland. It wasn’t given serious discussion either time.
In 1991, they issued $5 million to renovate the public pool, two fire stations, and to build another new fire station.
In 1995, they issued $11 million for the “renovation of the high school and two city middle schools.” Note that these renovations preceded the $66.5 million high school renovation that would begin 10 years later.
Also in 1995, they issued $1.2 million to purchase land for Roane State Community College. The city recently borrowed another $500,000 to expand their campus.
In 1996, they borrowed $16 million to build a new central services complex, make improvements to Linden Elementary School, construct three new ball fields, and make road improvements.
In 1998, they borrowed $7.3 million to build a city-owned golf course. This golf course was never expected to be profitable, rather it was to attract new residents. The mantra that “you’ve got to spend money to make money” transcended to “you’ve got to lose money to make money.” This venture failed so badly that council couldn’t even get an offer when they tried to sell it to a private investor. Fourteen years later, we are still on the hook for this debt for over $4 million.
Also in 1998, they issued $3.2 million to demolish the old central services building, enhance roads and greenways, and miscellaneous school projects.
In 2000, they issued $10 million. Half went to city projects including greenway and road expansions as well as storm water drainage improvements (sound familiar?). The other half went to making upgrades at the high school and two middle schools as well as Linden Elementary School.
Then, between the years of 2004-2009, with the approval of the voters for no more than $58 million, they issued $66.5 million for the high school renovation project. Due to four years of non-payment, this debt has only decreased to $62.7 million.
This listing was extracted from the 2012 city budget narratives and though not all-inclusive, you can fully expect the city to attempt to issue more debt in the next six to 12 months.
We are at a crossroads. You have a choice. You have a say. You can choose to hold your local government, the level of government that has the greatest impact on your finances, accountable. Or, you can do like so many have already done (and more will soon follow) and just move away, leaving the rest of us to figure it out.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a quitter. I’m not giving up that easily. I’ve made Oak Ridge my home, and I intend to be here for a long, long time. I do not intend, however, to continue down this same path of spending without limits or consideration for the future.