The following represents an unofficial account of the significant items discussed and/or voted upon during the October 20, 2015 City Council Work Session and Special Meetings. The complete agenda packets are found here and here.
Joint Work Session with the Board of Education:
Presentation of the Preschool Committee’s Recommendation for a new Preschool Building
Mayor Gooch’s appointee, Shirley Raines, gave the presentation which is found here. The committee recommends building a new building within the next 2 years on the site of the current Elm Grove playground at a base cost of $7.5 million. Highlights include:
- 40,000 square feet
- 20 classrooms which would serve 320 students and would include 4 more classes than we currently have
- Cost of the building would be $6.3M and the prep work would cost $1.2M. These amounts were estimates only as a detailed cost analysis was not performed.
- Impact on the tax rate would be between 4 to 7 cents depending on financing options
- Previous estimates for a new building were upwards of $12M. It is unclear of how the $4.5M cost savings were attributed. Costs did not include new equipment or furnishings.
The meeting concluded with a discussion about a recent Vanderbilt study (read here) that challenges the efficacy of preschool. I expressed my appreciation for our program having seen some tremendous results firsthand but feel that we need to consider weighing this study’s claims (that by third grade, most of the students enrolled in Pre-K were scoring at or below their peers who never enrolled in Pre-K) against the fact that 44% of our students are testing at less than proficient in reading in grades 3-8. (See this year’s Report Card, just released, here).
At $12,335 per pupil, we continue to outspend most of the state on education. Considering that our low income population has nearly tripled since 1996 (it rose from 19% to 55%) and our debt has more than tripled in that same time ($52M to $180M), we must consider the highest and best use of every tax dollar entrusted to us. If both bodies deem the new building worthwhile, it is my hope that we will seek alternative funding solutions that do not further burden our residents (we could start by selling the endless money pit of a golf course).
Next steps are outlined at the end of the presentation but immediate steps include allowing for a community review in November and a potential vote by both council and the BOE in December to commit to the project.
Special Called Meeting
a. Resolution approving an amended economic impact plan for the redevelopment of the Oak Ridge Mall area. Motion passed 6-1 with Baughn voting “no”
This was essentially a second approval for the 30 year TIF loan valued at $13M. The original vote involved a different developer. My reasons for my vote are the same as before and are outlined here but boil down to three things: unrealistic projections, the suppression of property tax revenue to the current rate of 10% for 30 years and zero contingencies or clawbacks should the project fail.
What’s more, these tax giveaways are not producing the kind of revenues promised which leaves those who are paying their fair share having to make up for those who don’t. Far too many businesses or quasi businesses aren’t paying their fair share with 1,000 acres of land valued at $6,000,000 yielding no taxes and another $60,000,000 in properties yielding only half of the required taxes due to city-approved tax abatements.
We are all still paying for far too much for far too many expensive mistakes and simply cannot afford to continue trusting the same people with our financial future. For example:
- Seventeen years ago, against a public outcry, they borrowed $7.3M to build a golf course. That golf course has never turned a profit and we still owe over $2M on the note.
- Sixteen years ago, they took $15M of your money with similar promises for a development on the West End that never materialized.
- Eleven years ago, they told you they were going to take $40 M and ended up taking $67M for a high school that was never even a priority on the CIP (even though the preschool had been on that priority list for decades).
- Just over twenty years ago, they took $24M of your money to avoid problems with the EPA.
- Seven years ago those pesky EPA problems happened anyway which gave the city an excuse to take another $33M from you.
For more on our city’s history of debt, read here.
b. Resolution authorizing the mayor to sign ceremonial documents associated with the Manhattan Project National Historical Park signing ceremonies. Motion passed unanimously.
c. Resolution inviting DOE officials to a city council meeting to address their travel practices in Oak Ridge and to share the benefits of hosting their conferences, meetings and seminars here. Motion passed unanimously.