To My Fellow Gen X & Y Oak Ridgers

My friends over 50 often ask me, “Why won’t more young people get involved in solving our city’s problems?”  My friends that are closer to my age often tell me, “Oak Ridge just isn’t what it used to be.” While I hope that people of all ages will read on, I am particularly addressing this column to those who, like me, are between the ages of 18 and 50 and have a vested interest in the long term future of this great city.

Besides the time factor, I believe one reason that more of us don’t participate in local government is that we feel secure as long as our property taxes remain unchanged. Reality, however, is a little harder to ignore when we are confronted with certain logical fallacies. Like, how can we pay for a flat budget when revenues have declined? Or, how can we afford to spend millions of dollars on new projects and not make cuts elsewhere? The answer is less attributable to controlled spending than you might think. By depleting non-renewable funds and increasing our debt, the city and schools have managed to artificially suppress the tax rate.

Younger adults also tend to assume that we are in no worse shape than anyone else. But as our neighbors start to recover and grow, Oak Ridge continues to struggle.

Why aren’t we growing? The simple answer is that we are too expensive and thus, less attractive to outsiders. We are spoiled. Oak Ridge is one of only a few Tennessee cities that funds its own police, fire and recreation departments as well as a K-12 school system. This would be a good thing except that now, in spite of paying the highest property taxes in the state (of comparable cities), our financial condition is worse than that of any other full service city in East Tennessee.

It’s time we all start questioning how our tax dollars are being spent. Of their 667 employees, the schools have over 50 secretaries and over 33 senior managers. Of their 401 employees, the city has roughly 32 secretaries and 40 senior managers. How many of these positions are mission critical verses non-essential?

Should the city spend $500,000 to help Roane State Community College expand or would it be wiser to use that money to offset the upcoming 30% sewer and water rate increase? Which will prove more attractive to prospective businesses?

What if, instead of spending $700,000 on a head-in room, the schools repaired Blankenship Field? Which of these projects has the greatest potential to attract new residents?

As they have for many years now, all 1,060+ city and school employees will receive a raise. Can we afford these permanent increases when, individually, we are having to do more with less in our personal budgets?

The results of our governmental actions and individual inaction are catching up with us. We desperately need more shopping, restaurants and jobs to offset the impact on our property taxes. But if we continue to spend as we have, our taxes and debt will increase and make Oak Ridge even less competitive for both new business and new residents.

On May 24th the BOE will adopt their 2013 budget and on May 29th the City Council will adopt theirs. If you want to stay in Oak Ridge after your children graduate and if you want them to return here, you cannot afford to remain disengaged. You have to start questioning how our city and schools are spending our money and you have to insist that they begin to prioritize and cut out non-essential spending.

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2 thoughts on “To My Fellow Gen X & Y Oak Ridgers

  1. You write, “Why aren’t we growing? The simple answer is that we are too expensive and thus, less attractive to outsiders.”

    Indeed, that is a simple answer. It is also simplistic to the point of being inadequate and misleading.

    I have had the advantage of living and working here considerably longer than have you. I moved here from out of state about 25 years ago, and the primary reasons that I chose to live in Oak Ridge were 1) my supervisor lived in Oak Ridge and he encouraged me to live here, 2) Knoxville and Knox county were in the running for ugliest places to live in the US, 3) every place around Oak Ridge was backward and narrow-minded, and 4) I didn’t want to drive 30-45 minutes to get to and from work every day. Back in the 1980s the major complaint was that Oak Ridge was deficient in modern affordable housing. (The houses in the $100k-$150k range were primarily remodeled C houses that did not appeal to newcomers.) There was also the complaint (by locals) that the property taxes in Oak Ridge were outrageously high, and by East Tennessee standards that was (and is) certainly true. It is also true that in terms of quality of life, most areas around Oak Ridge are Shitsville. As you leave Oak Ridge on every road you cross into a pathetic mess of people who are uncompromisingly opposed to taxes, government and civic pride. Whatever progress is proposed, they’re agin it. (Of course, there’s some of that in Oak Ridge as well.) The inescapable fact is that Tennessee is about a “D” letter grade state. We are in the bottom quartile of almost every meaningful quality of life category, including education, health and prosperity. Thank God for Mississippi and Louisiana or we’d be at the very bottom. To me, Oak Ridge was an oasis in the midst of a cultural desert.

    Now, to address your contention that we aren’t growing because we’re too expensive, let me tell you that in 25 years I have never met anyone who moved to the area for the purpose of working in Oak Ridge who said they chose not to live in Oak Ridge because it was “too expensive.” And believe me, I’ve asked plenty. Let me tell you what are the major reasons given to me by people who are employed in Oak Ridge but who chose not to live in Oak Ridge. They are, in order of popularity, as follows:
    1. I was living within driving distance (up to 30 miles) of Oak Ridge when I was hired and I want to keep living there.
    2. Everyone in Oak Ridge works for the government and I don’t want to live where everyone works for the same company.
    3. There are more black people and Hispanics in Oak Ridge than the surrounding areas. I am more comfortable living in Farragut/west Knoxville/Lenoir City/Maryville where there is a smaller percentage.
    4. I am a member of an ethnic group (not American born) and I want to live in Knoxville where there are more people like me.
    5. I’m from a big city and I don’t think I would like living in a small town like Oak Ridge where there are few cultural amenities like music, nightclubs, sports and recreation.

    Now here are the top reasons given to me by people who decided to locate in Oak Ridge:
    1. The public school system

    That’s it. There’s nothing else that is even close to the attraction of the public school system. It draws the rich and poor; whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians; the educated and the not-so-educated. It is the trump card played for everyone who wants his children to succeed in school.

    Now, since you claim to be so concerned about the growth of Oak Ridge, let me challenge you to discard the red herring of high property taxes and debt service and address the actual reasons people choose not to live in Oak Ridge, some of which I’ve provided above. If you keep flogging Abbatiello’s old nag, you’ll end up as the old crank’s youngest acolyte and will find yourself hitched to his farkleberry bush of contrarian sensibilities. And for Pete’s sake, stop diminishing our number one attraction – the public school system – via your longstanding vendetta against the superintendent. If you actually have ideas on how the City of Oak Ridge can effectively market itself to newcomers, that would be of real value. If I’m not mistaken, you are on the CVB board; what original ideas have you come up to promote Oak Ridge while serving there? Frankly, micromanaging the city budget and fretting over the debt, which for all intents and purposes you seem wont to do, is of little value for growing Oak Ridge. (And if it micromanaging WAS of value, you wouldn’t hold a candle to Ellen Smith’s brilliance for analysis paralysis.)

    Sometimes to be effective it is necessary to let go of your cherished biases, stop hiding behind pretend concern over “spending,” and ask some folks that are “between the ages of 18 and 50” what are the real issues and concerns. Don’t be surprised if the budget and the debt are trivial issues in comparison to a commitment to adequately funding the public school system.

  2. I appreciate your comments but I respectfully disagree. I’m sorry that you have such an obvious disdain for the place you call home, but I love Oak Ridge as well as the state of Tennessee for a myriad of reasons. I’m not sure why you choose stay here if the schools are the only aspect you find appealing since you obviously no longer have children in the system.

    Now, you say that “the budget and the debt are trivial issues in comparison to a commitment to adequately funding the public school system.” You know that Oak Ridge outspends (per pupil) the entire state and the national average and has for at least the last decade. If $12K per kid (the state average is $9K) does not adequately do the job, please share what amount will.

    As for your request that I “stop hiding behind pretend concern,” I encourage you to stop hiding behind fake monikers whilst cyber stalking me and join me for coffee so that we may carry out a truly meaningful conversation. You never know, we may actually agree on some things.

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