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.