Peaceful Transfer of Power

Earlier this week, the Albany City Council met for the first time this year and a new councilor was sworn in along with two incumbents who had been reelected. I have been a part of many of these ceremonies over the years, and I’ve come to appreciate the good fortune we enjoy when citizens step forward to serve their communities.

I have worked for nine mayors and I can’t remember how many different councilors during my city government career. I think the majority of these folks have been fairly conservative with a few gravitating toward one extreme end or the other of the political spectrum. Nearly all have been genuinely nice people wanting to do the right thing for their communities. The only exceptions were a couple who seemed more interested in their selfish concerns than in the welfare of the town.

As I near retirement, I sometimes worry about the rough consensus that has existed in our community and in places across the country that has created conditions leading to prosperity and livability. People have always had strong political opinions, but nearly all the people I’ve worked for have observed basic courtesies and refrained from vicious personal attacks. The advent of social media where people can post or twitter really nasty stuff may be changing the civic environment. National leaders are not helping the situation, and it may be that younger people just assume that nastiness is a necessary part of the democratic process. I hope not.

Humiliation and degradation rarely, if ever, enable collaborative efforts. Governing at all levels is an exercise in getting people to agree enough to do things that need to get done. Respect and consideration are important values for people interested in achieving collective goals. I routinely see this behavior at our city council meetings and only rarely see personal animosity. We have strong personalities on the Council with very different views of the world, yet they frequently show concern and consideration for one another.

As mayors and councilors have changed over time, there has been an ongoing commitment to trying to improve Albany. New infrastructure projects like the water and wastewater treatment plants, new facilities like the library and police and fire stations, downtown renovation, economic development projects, and social service initiatives have succeeded with support from councilors, regardless of their political affiliation.

I think the new Council will retain many of the same values we’ve seen during my tenure as City Manager, and I think that’s a good thing. The differences are likely to be positive as well. We don’t do much to celebrate the peaceful transition of power at the local level, perhaps because we have become too cynical about politics at all levels. We may want to turn our attention away for a moment from a gaudy presidential inauguration and give quiet thanks for the countless people who volunteer to oversee many of the critical services that most affect our lives.

The Benefits of Aging

Yesterday, January 5, I celebrated my 64th birthday by eating too much good food and hanging out with family. The only card I received was from the guy who helped us refinance our home a few years ago, but I got some nice presents from my wife and lots of nice posts on Facebook. Rather than reflect on all the negative things associated with growing older, however, I have decided this year to count the many blessings associated with reaching three score and four.

Have you ever seen a young person driving an RV on I-5? An older friend and I recently traveled to Eugene; and I asked him, since I was driving, to look at every person driving an RV to see if any of them looked younger than the two of us. We saw lots of RVs, but no drivers who appeared to be under 60. My point is that old people have most of the discretionary money in this country, and it’s backed up by empirical observation. Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, and even Bill Gates are not spring chickens. There are a few exceptions like Mark Zuckerberg, but the vast majority of wealthier Americans are old.

When you have a limited future, long-term challenges don’t matter much unless you have a conscience. Climate change, joblessness, lack of education, Russian aggression, and immigration issues probably aren’t going to have a big impact on my generation. I don’t have or want an RV; but if I did, I could hop in it and leave my worries behind on the highway. Many of my retired friends keep sending me pictures from their winter homes in places like Arizona, California, and Mexico, as if I should be jealous of their warmth. Apparently, they don’t realize that we still have central heating and a nice gas fireplace, not to mention skiing and other winter activities. I wonder what the Mexicans are going to do with all those old Americans after the Great Wall is built.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of growing old is that people no longer expect much from you. I used to be asked to help people move with some frequency, and now I rarely receive requests. Even my wife saves really disagreeable tasks for my sons rather than expecting me to do them. I’m pretty sure I can still outrun all of my children, although it’s in my best interest not to brag about it. I do get more phone calls from people trying to cheat me out of money, but I’m able to have some fun by leading them on before I hang up.

More money, fewer worries, and low expectations – who could ask for more? “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” (No apologies to the youngsters who will not recognize this allusion.) So far, so good.

Happy New Year

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s true and what’s not. Much about the work I’ve been doing for the past 30-plus years is arguable. Is the town better or worse for investing in one thing over another? People on opposing sides of an argument can make a case to support a variety of different conclusions. Some things, however, are objectively true; and some are not.

Despite a drumbeat of criticism from a few individuals over how difficult it is to build, do business, or live in Albany, more people keep moving here. Albany has grown steadily over the last decade, with population increasing from about 48,000 in 2005 to more than 52,000 in 2016. Subdivisions, apartment buildings, individual homes, and senior living facilities have all been constructed over the past few years; and the rate currently seems to be increasing. Albany’s growth may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on an individual’s point of view, but it is also an undeniable fact.

Growth in population has been accompanied by growth in investment and value. Even when accounting for the most significant recession of my lifetime, property values today are significantly higher than they were a decade ago. It makes sense that as more people choose to live here, the value of our property will continue to increase. Albany’s growth has also meant more visitors (or at least more money from visitors) as transient lodging tax receipts have increased dramatically over the past three years.

The size of city government has declined over the past several years. Some people complain about how government always grows, but Albany now has fewer employees than we did in 2008. Our ratio of employees to residents is lower than it has been during the past dozen years or longer. Again, a strong argument can be made that smaller government during a time of population growth is not a positive trend if you value City services, but the actual number of employees is not subject to debate.

Most people seem to believe that the number of government employees and the size of government have grown explosively in recent times. The actual numbers do not support this belief, either in Albany or the nation as a whole. There were about 4.2 million federal government employees in 2014 as compared to 5.35 million in 1962. The federal workforce grew to much larger levels during the Vietnam War (more than 6.6 million) and has declined fairly steadily since. Even considering the growth in state workers, the overall percentage of government workers has been on a downward trend for decades. According to Business Insider in 2015, “Government employment since the 1970s has grown at a slower rate than employment overall, causing the proportion of government employees among total employees to remain on a mostly downward trend over the last 30 years. As of December, about 15.6% of all employees worked for the government. The last time the percentage was lower than its current level was in August 1960.”

My hope for the New Year is that I will pay more attention to fact and less to opinion. A quotation I’ve often heard attributed to various people summarizes the issue nicely regardless of who said it: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” Much of what we hear and see today just ain’t so; and given our easy access to reliable information, I believe we have a greater obligation to figure out the truth than we have been exercising.