THE PEOPLE’S BUSINESS – 5/13/13 OAK RIDGE CITY COUNCIL MEETING SUMMARY/FIRST READING OF THE FY2014 BUDGET

The following represents an unofficial account of the significant items voted upon during the May 13th, 2013 regular city council meeting. The complete agenda packet and full video of the meeting can be viewed here. Draft meeting minutes will be posted at the city website as part of the May 28th Regular Meeting Agenda packet.

VII. CONSENT AGENDA   (2 items total, both  passed by unanimous vote)

b. A resolution awarding a contract to Nedrow & Associates for one digester pump for the Wastewater Treatment Plant for the estimated amount of $36,843.

VII. RESOLUTIONS   (3 items total, all passed by unanimous vote)

a.  A resolution approving the FY2014 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Annual Action Plan and proposed allocations of entitlement funds estimated at $215,024. $107,024 of these funds will be designated for residential blighted property acquisition/demolition. Including these and other funding sources, we are budgeting to spend, over the course of one year, almost half a million dollars to acquire and demolish homes.  Kingston recently received a $500K CDBG grand and opted to use it for individual home owner improvement grants. I encouraged the staff to consider using some of our funds in the future for the same purposes instead of using all for acquisition and demolition.

b.  City & CVB annual audit contracts with Pugh & Company for one year for $62,950.

This contract includes an increase of $9,150. $2,150 of that increase is to cover the increases originally proposed in the 2008 contract and equals a 4% increase. I asked if the 4% increase was set in stone or negotiable. The response from the finance director was that it was what the firm proposed. I stated that Pugh performs the city, schools, CVB and Chamber audits and asked if there were any other OR city-funded entities for whom they perform audit services. The response from staff was that they did not know. I also stated that this would make the 6th year that the same firm will conduct our annual audit and asked if SAS, GAAS or Sarbanes-Oxley address frequency of auditor rotation for the sake of maintaining objectivity? The finance director said that the subject is frequently debated but there has been nothing definitive. I asked that before we consider this same firm next year, I’d like clearer answers to both of the above issues.

c. A resolution to close the Economic Diversification Fund at the end of FY2013.

IX. PUBLIC HEARINGS AND FIRST READING OF ORDINANCES

2014 City Budget First Reading/Public Hearing (the establishment of the property tax rate)

I distributed a copy of  9 motions that I intended on introducing. (You can read a complete justification for each here.) Mayor Beehan expressed his frustrations that I should have sent these items to council in advance of the meeting. I stated that to be a clear violation of the sunshine law which prohibits members of the same body from discussing items that are to be voted on outside of a public meeting. Further, this was the first and only opportunity for council to deliberate this budget since we had received it.

The first 6 motions were seconded for discussion by Councilwoman Garcia Garland.

1. Eliminate excess funding for acquiring and demolishing blighted properties (Line 967 Housing Initiatives). Savings to taxpayer: $150,000 or 1.6 cents off the property tax rate.

Failed 5-1 with Garcia Garland abstaining, Baughn voting aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan and Hope voting Nay.

2. Refund a small portion of the Economic Development Fund. I propose cutting lobbyists and special events totaling over $317,000 by just under one third. Savings to taxpayer: $90,000 or 1 cent off the property tax rate.

Failed 6-1 with Baughn voting Aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan, Hope and Garcia Garland voting Nay.

3. Reduce travel expenditures by 20%. Savings to taxpayer: $290,000 or 3 cents off the property tax rate. Garcia Garland proposed an amendment to reduce travel by 10% which I seconded.

Failed 3-5 with Baughn, Garcia Garland & Hope voting Aye and Mosby, Hensley, Beehan and Miller voting nay. Original motion of 20% reduction then failed 2-5 with Baughn and Garcia Garland voting aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan and Hope voting Nay.

4. Reduce club membership costs (excluding the Chamber of Commerce, ACEDA and Innovation Valley) by 50%. Savings to taxpayer: $30,000 or .33 cents off the property tax rate.

Failed 6-1 with Baughn voting Aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan, Hope and Garcia Garland voting Nay.

5. Reduce library funding to the same per capita levels as the Maryville/Blount County ratios. Savings to taxpayer: $952,000 or 10.5 cents off the property tax rate.

Failed 6-1 with Baughn voting Aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan, Hope and Garcia Garland voting Nay.

 6. Reduce the Recreation and Parks $3 million budget by 10%.  Savings to taxpayer: $300,000 or 3 1/3 cent off the property tax rate.

Failed 6-1 with Baughn voting Aye and Mosby, Hensley, Miller, Beehan, Hope and Garcia Garland voting Nay.

At this point, some councilmembers expressed their frustrations. Hensley thought it improper of council to make changes to the budget and stated, “It is to the public’s benefit to limit council on [the number of] changes [they can make.]” He went on to question the accuracy of my proposals and complained about my use of social media to engage the public. Mayor Beehan again complained that I should have sent these proposals to council in advance. I maintained my position that it is a violation of sunshine law for us to deliberate matters to be voted on.  Councilwoman Garcia Garland felt that council should have been provided, as they had in the past, with other opportunities to have such discussions prior to the first reading. I motioned that we call a special meeting prior the final vote. The motion passed 5-2 with Baughn, Garcia Garland, Beehan, Miller and Mosby voting aye and Hope and Hensley voting nay.

At this point, Councilman Hope discussed his intended proposed motions. Rather than formally make motions on them, he allowed them to be included in the upcoming special meeting:

  1. Add $75,000 to the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce contract…with the remaining $125,000 set aside to be used if any additional projects come forward this next calendar year.
  2. Add $250,000 to the capital maintenance portion of our maintenance and operations (M&O) budget.
  3. Add $50,000 to start the process of pre-engineering drawing and studies for the relocation of Fire Station No. 2 to Melton Lake Drive.

We were then asked to vote on the entire budget. Our city attorney urged us to vote it through with an understanding that things might change. I challenged that advice stating that it is pointless to vote just for the sake of a vote. I refused to vote in favor of something that I did not agree with. The motion to approve the entire budget as it was proposed was made and passed 5-2 with Baughn and Hope votinng Nay and the rest voting Aye.

X. FINAL ADOPTION OF ORDINANCES (2 items total, both passed by unanimous vote)

(Third attempt) Second and final reading of amendments for land use and zoning for parcel to be occupied by a Dollar General store.

XII. COUNCIL REQUESTS FOR NEW BUSINESS ITEMS FOR FUTURE BRIEFINGS

The following items were briefly discussed. No action was taken nor did most of council express a desire to pursue any of the ideas. I discussed these proposals in depth here.

  • Direct the city manager to pursue converting the following city-owned assets into taxable properties:

1. Put the golf course up for sale – it was disclosed that we likely owe more on this debt than we could sell it for even though it was purchased over 15 years ago (for $7million) and won’t be paid off until 2021.

2. Terminate the lease agreement with the Chamber of Commerce and place property for sale – The city owns the land that the Chamber’s building is on. They lease the land from the city for around $600 per year. Mayor Beehan opposed pursuing this because he felt the contract was made in good faith. Chamber President Parker Hardy was very vocal and agitated about the suggestion. I asked him directly if he would be open to renegotiating a fairer rate out of consideration for the fact that it is a taxpayer asset. His response was to yell out that “We have a contract, Mr. Mayor.” 

3. Put the Commerce Park building located next to Tech 2020 up for sale

Even though it has tenants, neither this nor the Tech 2020 building next to it produce any revenue for the city. In fact, they cost us money in ground maintenance.  Mr. Henlsey was very upset at this suggestion and accused me of putting out half truths. He stated that this building along with the actual Tech 2020 building were funded by an EDA Grant which still has an outstanding balance of over $800k and could not be sold.

4. Establish a policy for returning acquired blight properties to a taxable status as quickly as possible – — currently we have 10 residential properties acquired for this purpose, though the city owns many others acquired through other means. I suggested that we hold a full discussion on this and the Land Bank in the near future.

5. Request that the IDB provide proof that the PILT program has provided a return on investment great enough to justify the abatements provided. This program will be up for renewal in the fall and I suggested that council be proactive about delving into the details to determining whther or not this program has benefited our taxpayers.

6. Commission a team of representatives from the City of Oak Ridge, Anderson County, Roane County along with their respective property assessors to research and eventually negotiate voluntary PILT agreements with exempt organizations who are most able to afford paying for city services that are currently paid for by the taxpayer, i.e. Methodist Medical Center, Oak Ridge Utility District, Tech 2020, Roane State Community College and the University of Tennessee. This idea was met with equal resistance. The main argument being that these organizations provide valuable services to the community.

MEETING ADJOURNED WITH A DATE TO BE DETERMINED FOR A SPECIAL CALLED MEETING

The results of the Special Called meeting held on May 16th will be forthcoming. In the meantime you can read Ellen Smith’s live blog account here  and/or read a truncated version of the four hour meeting at Oak Ridge Today .com here.

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3 thoughts on “THE PEOPLE’S BUSINESS – 5/13/13 OAK RIDGE CITY COUNCIL MEETING SUMMARY/FIRST READING OF THE FY2014 BUDGET

  1. Your recounting of the budget discussions and votes is amazing. It’s like turning a dead log in the woods and seeing slugs react to the sun. To have 6 well-reasoned proposals shot down 5-1, 6-1, 3-5, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 is a badge of honor.

    When I was regularly writing guest columns for the Oak Ridger, I sort of felt like a rogue shark, circling the waters off a Club Med, satisfied to just instill fear and keep the fat cats from completely enjoying themselves. But if I were in OR now, I’m afraid I’d be more inclined to munch some fat.

    On Sat, May 18, 2013 at 11:37 PM, Trina Baughn

  2. In regard to the CDBG, I’d love to see a breakdown of how the $107,024 will be spent. I imagine a good portion is in demo and removal.

    If this is the case, I humbly ask how one finds out about open bids for such work. Consider that a general question on how the bid process works in Dogpatch (what Grandpa and others called O.R. back in the day).

    Also, is there a possibility that any of these blighted properties could be purchased by the private sector. I’m not against the city’s goals on this (as I understand them, which is still quite vague), but I’ve not yet heard other options.

    Is there a list of said properties? A list of proposals on what to do with the properties, etc?

    I look forward to a future full discussion on this, most certainly. Something about it smacks of ‘hand waving.’ And my spidey sense is tingling.

  3. Hi, Martha. I do perceive that much of the crruent growth in the Farragut-Lenoir City corridor is attributable to location and not to any policies or initiatives that these communities are (or aren’t) pursuing. People knowledgeable about the business-location business nationwide say that one of the main things that commercial and industrial clients seek is proximity to an exit on a limited-access highway the best locations are within one mile of an exit. The Farragut-Lenoir City area has those kinds of locations, and Oak Ridge doesn’t. Furthermore, in our society, the natural expansion of metro areas is along highway corridors on the edge of the metro area. Since at least the 1960s (before I came here), Knoxville has been moving west along Kingston Pike and the Interstate. Bearden was once the western frontier, then West Town, then Downtown West (the hot new shopping area when I moved here), then the Cedar Bluff area, now Turkey Creek, and soon Lenoir City (but not traditional downtown Lenoir City, which is becoming a ghost town). The influx of retirees to Tellico Village and other lake developments in Loudon County is another factor in growth there, and I think that the closure of Bethel Valley Road to the public probably helped business in Lenoir City (a little bit, anyway) because it made it harder for people there to get to Oak Ridge. Given their location in the path of Knoxville’s expansion, I think that the crruent growth in Farragut and Lenoir City was almost inevitable. Oak Ridge is entitled to be jealous of the businesses there, but it would be a mistake to assume that those communities have enacted policies that Oak Ridge should emulate, because the happenstance of location (luck) is an important ingredient in what’s going on there. (I’m reminded of the Texas political joke that said that George W. Bush was Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Not every success can be fully credited to the efforts of the person who achieves it.)

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