Note: This is a copy of a letter sent to Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan and Oak Ridge City Council members, among others.
Dear Mayor Beehan,
Next Monday evening you will begin considering a major increase in the Oak Ridge city debt to finance the sewer upgrade project. This increase and the associated utility rate increases:
- Hurt existing city businesses, especially large water users—making it substantially more difficult for them to economically compete;
- Give realtors in surrounding communities another sizable competitive advantage, drawing even more U.S. Department of Energy reservation workers away from our city (and away from Anderson and Roane counties);
- Limit future financing options for our schools;
- Limit Oak Ridge’s ability to afford other key city services like police and fire protection; and
- Impose a financial burden on residents who live on limited, fixed incomes.
Most importantly, the added debt seriously weakens the city’s negotiating position with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DOE. Why should EPA or DOE come to the table, if the Council readily imposes this debt on the community?
I recommend that the Council:
- Defer the debt hike until EPA, DOE, and the Council have completed negotiations. Oak Ridge is in a strong position to request a reasonable EPA order to replace the current one. The city has taken important positive steps to address the underlying environmental concern. And it’s in DOE’s best interest (i.e., in the best interests of DOE’s science, defense, and environmental management missions) to negotiate a fair cost-sharing arrangement. There is no reason that negotiations with EPA and DOE should take more than a few weeks—once they are at the table.
- Propose a reasonable technical alternative to the current EPA order. Do not simply “meet” with EPA; propose an alternative order that’s tailored to the city and gets the job done at an affordable cost. This alternative can be quickly created by appropriate technical experts. If preparation takes longer, you do not have the right experts.
- Establish a negotiating position that recognizes the bulk of this problem is a federal pollution legacy. Most of the Oak Ridge sewer system was hurriedly designed and constructed by the federal government. It was seriously undersized from the beginning. Local residents and businesses should not have to pay to correct a pollution problem created by the federal government to serve a federal need.
- Closely monitor the costs, schedule, and scope of the entire sewer upgrade program—during Council meetings. Utilize comprehensive baseline cost and schedule estimates that address all upgraded processes, not just those of the capital project.
- Retain the services of a project manager to assist the Council.
- Defer this month’s utility rate increase until: (a) EPA enters negotiations on the order and (b) DOE contributes a fair share of the costs.
- Host the next meeting with EPA in the City of Oak Ridge and open that meeting to public comment.
We need your leadership—and the leadership of Vice-Mayor Jane Miller—to find the best path forward. The city is at an important crossroads.