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.
I am fully aware from talking with so many of you that you cannot afford to continue writing blank checks for your city’s mistakes. I know that many residents and businesses have been contemplating leaving Oak Ridge all together. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to communicate your hardships to my fellow council members, my pleas continue to fall on deaf ears.
Therefore, I am appealing to the public to join me in an effort to encourage the rest of council to seek out alternative ways to pay for these expenses. Once again, I offer my own suggestions, which include both new and old ideas.
Even though council recently approved the city annual budget, there is nothing preventing us from directing the city manager to reallocate funds. In fact, since we approved the budget in May, we have already realized some areas of surplus.
For example, during our recent discussions on waived competitive bids, we learned that Public Works had duplicated expenditures when they budgeted for eight additional employees in both their personnel and temporary staffing line items. They also explained that they regularly overbudget for certain items, like water treatment chemicals, by as much as $200,000. While being conservative is practical, it is a luxury we cannot afford during such tough times.
Cities in similar predicaments, like Richmond, Va., and Lafayette, Ind., have imposed drainage fees on all tax-exempt organizations to help pay for the EPA crackdown on storm water runoff. Their logic is that rain doesn’t discriminate between exempt and non-exempt properties, so why should the city?
Another untapped revenue source may be found in advertising. I’m not suggesting that we sell space on the sides of our buildings, but there are some less intrusive avenues worth exploring. It’s not uncommon to see local businesses advertise at sports fields. Less common, but not unheard of, is selling space on city vehicles. We could also consider integrating an online business directory into our website and charge a nominal, annual fee per business.
Though council previously rejected all of the following suggestions, perhaps time has allowed for a renewed perspective that could allow us to focus more on workarounds and less on hindrances.
Council has the option to reallocate the $100,000 budgeted for the Land Bank and instead require the program to be entirely funded by grants and donations. Since we already have possession of the starter homes for that program and since the board of directors would be comprised entirely of volunteers, we have no immediate need for the cash.
Council could also commission a team of representatives from the city and both counties along with the property assessors to research and negotiate voluntary payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, agreements with exempt organizations who are most able to afford paying for city services that are currently paid for by the taxpayer.
We could advertise the golf course as “For Sale: Half Price.” Though it has been 15 years since we built it, we still owe about half of what we borrowed. Let’s just cut our losses while we can and immediately apply the $500,000 per year that we would otherwise continue paying through 2021 toward some of this water/sewer debt.
We could renegotiate the lease with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce to a rate that aligns with true market value. As it currently stands, we are locked into a 25-year lease that collects roughly $600 per year. If Mr. Hardy is not willing to renegotiate their lease, then the city could put the land up for sale. If it doesn’t sell, then let’s put the land up for auction. Even if the winning bid is $1, we will have created a new source of sustainable revenue by converting it into taxable property.
Council could direct the city manager to impose a hiring freeze to allow for the reduction of non-critical positions through attrition. The city has an annual turnover rate of 5 percent. If we reduced full-time equivalents, or FTEs, by 2.5 percent, the potential annual savings could be as much as $632,500.
These are all merely suggestions. I’m sure that if we all put our heads together and committed to finding alternatives that we can change our current course. Normally, I would encourage any and all of you to contact me with your thoughts. But, at this juncture, that is not how we will make change. If you want to influence council on these most critical decisions, decisions that will hit your family directly where it hurts the most, then you must engage your other council members as you have me. Sending a single e-mail will not be enough. Speaking at the lectern will not be enough. You must email ALL of council ([email protected]), ALL of the local press, and you ALL must come to our meetings.
The final vote on these increases will be in October. After that, the only recourse you will have left comes in November 2014, when four of the seven council seats will be up for election. Unfortunately, most of the damage will have already been done by then.
Trina Baughn is an Oak Ridge City Council member.