Last week, the Oak Ridge Board of Education (BOE) chairman, Keys Fillauer, responded to one of my columns that asked of our schools, “Are we getting what we’re paying for?” Rather than address our problems, Mr. Fillauer lamented, “Why would I want to move to a place where all I read is negativity?”
Since we have one of the highest property tax rates1 in the state and over $170 million in debt and with so many other attractive, comparable communities nearby from which to choose, why would anyone want to move here, Mr. Fillauer? How much further should we allow our city and schools to decline before you will pursue a course correct that doesn’t involve demanding more money of this community?
Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate what Oak Ridge has to offer and I still see a lot of reasons to hope for a brighter future. But that is the very reason we must face reality and acknowledge the fact that we are in a steady state of decline. You can’t begin to fix a problem until you acknowledge that it exists in the first place.
It’s time to quit throwing money that we don’t have at our problems and start making sound, sensible financial decisions. With the goals of stabilizing (and eventually reducing) our property tax rate, reducing our debt and increasing our revenue base, these are my proposed solutions for a viable future:
- Spend Less. Council and the BOE should immediately and unanimously declare a spending freeze for at least the next two budget cycles. Oak Ridge has increased its city budget each and every year throughout the recent recession. We are not living in a bubble and cannot afford to continue down this path. There is no excuse to increase the annual budget until we get a handle on our financial affairs.
- Cut carefully and equitably. Because the schools receive half of our taxes, have twice the staff as the city and are the beneficiaries of over half of our debt, they too should share in cuts. Enrollment has stagnated for the last 10 years2 while spending is up 50%. These facts alone should be grounds to petition the state for an adjustment in our maintenance of effort obligation.
- Establish a REAL debt policy that contains a debt ceiling and an aggressive debt reduction plan. This was promised to us by council and the city manager months ago. We no longer have the luxury of delaying this critical step.
- Reduce and reallocate. When funds go unspent, reduce the amount the following year and reallocate towards our debt or other needs. Do not use unspent funds for unplanned expenses. That’s what reserves are for.
- Get creative. Necessity is the mother of invention. Let’s work towards removing obstacles and creating mutually beneficial, affordable solutions. We all know that we have an abundance of vacant buildings. Let’s start putting them to use.
- Stop believing in the DOE Fairy. It’s time to quit believing that DOE will pay for our capital needs. Ten years ago, the entire high school project started with a false promise that DOE was going to foot the bill because they needed a world-class high school to attract future employees. Now, Oak Ridgers are left holding the bag on over $66 million of debt with no real increase in enrollment to show for it. Yet, we are contemplating a $6 million library expansion all because Mayor Beehan says that “DOE will pay for it.” No, no they won’t Mr. Mayor.
- Put all future debt obligations on the ballot. Personally, I don’t see how we can afford to go into further debt and, as a general rule, I do not support public/private partnerships that require general debt obligations. But, if opportunities come up that show real promise of increasing our revenue base, I believe that the voters should decide whether or not they want to take that risk.
Rather than use the press to refute all of the fallacies of Mr. Fillaeur’s excuses for our decline, I have heeded citizen input and opted for a solutions-oriented approach. I challenge him, the rest of the BOE and city council to do the same. Sitting across the table from one another and rehashing the same old song and dance has gotten us nowhere. It’s time to quit making excuses and start making tough decisions.
1Property Tax Rates: http://www.comptroller1.state.tn.us/PAnew/LR.asp?W=11
2According to state figures, ORS enrollment has increased by four students since 2001. See TN DOE Report Cards for 2001 & 2011 at http://tn.gov/education/reportcard/index.shtml.