The following are my 2015 budget recommendations to the city manager:
I commend you for your willingness to reduce spending in your formulation of the Fiscal Year 2015 city budget. This approach is essential to making Oak Ridge more attractive to prospective residents and businesses.
As you know, Oak Ridge has the third highest city/county property tax rate in East Tennessee at $4.74. What you may not realize is this year, the city of Knoxville dropped below us in these rankings with a combined city/county rate of $4.71 while the majority of Knox Countians still pay less than half of our rate at $2.32.
In response to your request for council suggestions, I encourage you to set a very obtainable goal. That is, reduce our total budget by .05 percent ($90,000) and return those monies to the taxpayers in the amount of a one-cent tax rate reduction. The following are my suggestions for accomplishing this goal.
Last year, many of my fellow council members indicated their support of a tax cut once the Uranium Processing Facility and Kroger projects began to produce revenue. With the Kroger Marketplace set to open in July, the timing is ideal for us to pass along some of the savings to our own customers! As you and Mayor Beehan have said, the anticipated new revenue from this project is approximately $1 million per year. The city’s portion should easily cover a one-cent reduction in our 2015 budget.
The amount of taxpayer money we are spending on travel is excessive, especially considering that we often send multiple delegates to the same conferences. Last February, for example, you, along with the mayor and two city employees, attended a two-day conference in Washington D.C. Were we not sufficiently represented by our county mayors and federal lobbyist who also attended?
By comparison, Knox County officials spend significantly less. Last year, the Knox County mayor’s total annual travel expenses were $1,104. We provide you with a nice SUV and over $15,000 in travel money to perform the same functions but at a much lower level of responsibility.
While most of Knox County commissioners don’t spend any taxpayer money on travel, their total travel expenses were $13,576 compared to our City Council budget of $38,000. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing, but I found no reason to travel my first year in office. None of my fellow council members’ trip reports have demonstrated any return on investment (unless you count camaraderie and creative synergy).
Since nearly half of our community is living paycheck to paycheck, it isn’t right for us to spend their money for plush travel which is of no benefit to the needs of our constituency. I propose we eliminate both of these travel budgets for one year. If the loss is genuine, I would be open to reinstating them for FY2016. Should this suggestion be rejected, I will make the same motion that I did last year to reduce my $5,428 share of this expense.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
After many years of funneling millions of dollars to the Chamber of Commerce, they (through their president) have made it clear that city funding is no longer warranted. Because Parker Hardy recently stated in his letter to the editor “We are not taxpayer-subsidized,” we can safely assume that he neither appreciates the taxpayers generosity nor needs it. So let us move forward and return those funds back to the taxpayer. We should still retain our membership, however, for as long as Mr. Hardy expects us to allow him to squat on city property for next to nothing.
As the Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to take steps toward self-sufficiency, it is logical the city facilitate that transition by reducing their funding incrementally. If we reduce their funding by $90,000, they will still have $230,000 on which to operate and another year to bring in replacement revenues. Their acquisition of the Secret City Half Marathon should cover part, if not all, of the budgetary shift.
I made the suggestion last year to reduce library funding based on the fact that our per-capita spending was $48 compared to the Blount County Library’s $16. Soon thereafter, Aditya Savara researched the matter and provided council with an outstanding analysis clearly demonstrating serious inefficiencies. He found most of our $1.4 million budget is spent on staff while only 10 percent is spent on materials. His research of national averages shows that the average library spends closer to 20 percent on materials and suggests we are overstaffed by at least 30 percent. He posed a question that begs a response: “If we spent $1 million a year on books and let the Oak Ridge citizens take them home, would we be better off than employing 17 librarians?” Let’s take him up on his challenge and at least reduce funding by $90,000, or 6.4 percent, of their total budget.
With nearly 400 employees, we seem grossly overstaffed compared to Maryville, which employees one-third fewer staff. Again, because we see an average 5 percent turnover rate, I believe we have room to improve without cutting actual employees.
If you can’t find a way to reduce spending through attrition, then perhaps you can explore creative ways to trim fat in senior management. We are spending nearly $1.4 million on 15 director salaries (excluding benefits), which represents 15.5 cents on the property tax rate. Why not enact a temporary 6 percent pay cut? You should be able to fully reinstate those salaries (maybe even with back pay!) as soon as the dough rolls in from the UPF project.
That approach would retain all positions; however, you could accomplish the same level of savings by simply reorganizing and eliminating just one of the positions. You could base your decision on customer satisfaction assessed through a simple public survey. Understanding how the public perceives departmental performance could provide you with invaluable data for use beyond the original intent. I would suggest listing each director along with their salaries and total budgets and ask questions like, “Do you think you are getting your money’s worth from these departments? If so, what are we doing right? If not, what can we do better to serve you?”
- Electric director—$112,000
- Fire chief—$94,000
- Police chief—$113,000
- Public Works director—$106,000
- Finance director—$96,000
- Library director—$86,000
- Personnel director—$93,000
- Senior staff attorney—$66,000
- City clerk—$51,000
- City manager—$155,000
- City attorney—$107,000
- Recreation and Parks director—$99,000
- Government Affairs/Information Services director—$88,000
- Community Development director—$89,000
- City judge—$42,000
In the past, I’ve provided you with dozens of other ways to save taxpayer money. This year, however, I am simplifying my recommendations with the hope that you and council will view my requests in a more reasonable and favorable light. I’m asking for one penny to be returned to our taxpayers. It’s the equivalent of .05 percent of our entire budget. If we could accomplish this small feat, we would demonstrate good stewardship, which would help us to regain some of the public trust that has been lost in recent years.
Thank you for the invitation to share, and I look forward to your presentation on June 2.
Trina Baughn is an Oak Ridge City Council member.