Animals Here and There

Animals have, if you’ll pardon the expression, dogged me throughout my career.  I have written in the past about rats fighting their way through the sewers and into people’s toilets, only to become the responsibility of the city manager.  I have been called on a number of occasions to deal with deer, both dead and alive. 


The most tragic event was the murder of a good-sized buck in La Grande by a citizen armed with an air rifle.  I wasn’t present when one of our officers responded to a call about angry neighbors confronting a horrified resident who had just killed a deer that had been grazing in his garden.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife had loaned the aggrieved gardener an air rifle and told him to shoot the deer in the butt if the animal continued to trespass.   Unfortunately for the deer, the resident was not a great shot; and he hit the poor animal in the eye.  The wounded deer had just enough strength to run out of the garden and into the street before dying.  Our police officer was eventually forced to protect the truly repentant killer from the wrath of his neighbors.


Deer are notorious garden grazers, and one day I received an angry call from a lady threatening to sue the city if we didn’t do something to stop a persistent animal from ruining her vegetables.  I explained that deer are wards of the state and that city people are not allowed to harm them.  I suggested she call the Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for assistance.  A few hours later an ODFW employee called to tell me that he had responded to the complaint by going to the residence.  He was forced to leave in a hurry after the complainant became angry with him for “hurting the deer.”


Wild animal problems are relatively simple in comparison to the problems we have with each other’s pets.  Gardeners seem to be particularly testy about animals, and none more so than the brown-thumbed citizen who has just uncovered a cat dropping with his or her bare hand.  These incidents inevitably lead to a call to the city manager and a demand for cat regulation.  They also make a compelling case for the use of gloves when gardening.


I think dogs, however, are the champion complaint generators of the animal kingdom.  Everyone knows dogs bark, poop, bite, fight, and consort in overly familiar ways with other dogs.  These activities, while possibly endearing to the dog’s owners, are usually received with less enthusiasm by neighbors.  Dog confrontations have been known to lead to violence between neighbors, retaliatory vandalism, and the occasional lawsuit.

All of this leads the City of Albany to the uncomfortable question of how many dogs should be permitted in each household.  Albany’s two-dog limit, enacted more than 25 years ago, is now under fire.  The newspaper editor believes there should be no limit, arguing that the City should issue citations based on proscribed actions rather than simple numbers.  This argument makes good sense in theory, and some communities have adopted this approach.  The attraction of a limit is that it is much easier to prove someone has violated it than it is to prove dog misbehavior.  As someone who has listened to more than 20 years of dog disputes, I know that people seldom agree on what constitutes canine mischief.  These disagreements must then be resolved in municipal court at the cost of considerable time, money, and neighborhood harmony.


I do not have an opinion about what the right number of dogs should be for Albany.  A quick survey of colleagues around the state seems to show that most cities allow more than two, but less than five.  Bend has no limit and claims to have the highest per capita dog population in the state.  The Council will be wrestling with the issue at their next meeting, and I encourage all interested parties to share their opinion.  Dog regulations should be based on community values and attitudes.  There is a funny side (in my opinion) to many animal issues, but I fully understand that regulating pets is serious business.

Riding Financial Tides

City managers generally hate to admit that they don’t know everything there is to know about city finances.  I am guilty of this hubris and will proudly tell you that during my career the cities I have worked for have enjoyed good financial health during my tenure as city manager.  Life has a way of getting even, however, when pride overshadows humility.


Current international economic trends are catching up with the City of Albany, and we are starting to see declining revenue in a number of places.  Our Building Division is no longer receiving sufficient money from permits to support current operating levels.  The Community Development Department is developing a plan to sustain the division through fiscal years 2009 and 2010; but if there is no increase in building activity in the next year, greater cuts in expenses will be required.


I have told the City Council that our Building Division may be the canary in the coal mine for the City as a whole.  Earlier this week, the Governor announced that one approach to reducing the state’s budget shortfall may be to suspend payments to local government.  Like nearly every city in the state, Albany depends on its share of state liquor and cigarette taxes to help support essential services.  The second largest single revenue source for our transit service, for example, is state-shared money.


Previous years’ trends may no longer be a reliable guide to the future.  Property tax collections, our largest single revenue source in the General Fund, have steadily increased in recent years; and collections this year are slightly ahead of last year’s pace.  I do not expect this trend to continue next year and have asked directors to build their budgets accordingly. 


We are about to enter our annual budget process, and the preliminary message I will be giving to our Budget Committee on Monday is that while there is great uncertainty about how much money the City will receive next year, we can be very certain that our rate of growth will be lower.  We also know that the cost of providing existing services will be higher.  Obviously, this is not a sustainable trend.


As with all of life, there are many things that can happen to us that we can’t control.  We can, however, control how we respond to these events.  Albany is in a reasonably good financial position as we approach the year ahead.  We have a Strategic Plan that will help guide decisions and fulfill the obligation of our mission statement to provide the best possible service to our citizens.  I think the greatest danger of uncertainty and concern about potential challenges is a tendency to try to avoid them.  Our response should be, and I believe will be, to recognize our financial threats and address them in our budget process.  I am confident we can build a budget that will sustain services through the coming fiscal year and provide a foundation for continued financial health.

Monday’s Holiday

It was my privilege earlier this week to attend a forum sponsored by the City’s Human Relations Commission, Linn-Benton Community College, and Oregon State University.  I go to a lot of meetings and gatherings; so I rarely describe my attendance as a privilege.  What made this meeting different were the personal stories told by Derron Coles and Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, our Public Works Director.  I was unable to stay for the third speaker whom I’m told was equally articulate.


Dr. Coles and Diane are both civil engineers who have achieved great success in professions that have not always welcomed women, gays, or racial minorities.  What profession really has?  Diane’s story began with some history about how Asian immigrants were recruited to Hawaii at the turn of the 19th Century by large U.S. agricultural interests to work in the fields.  I’ve always known that Hawaii had a large number of Asian residents, but I never bothered to find out why.  Hard work and a commitment to education allowed Diane’s parents to become professionals who were able to provide their children with the tools to become successful adults.  Among those tools is an attitude that focuses on possibility and opportunity rather than despair and resentment.


Dr. Cole’s brief talk was in sharp contrast to Diane’s remarks.  While Diane (as always) had carefully prepared her thoughts and written notes, Dr. Coles spoke more extemporaneously about his experience as a gay, African-American growing up in Baltimore, Maryland.  I was touched not by his recounting of violence and prejudice directed against him, but by his belief in and commitment to living a life of hope and accomplishment.  The speakers didn’t have time to compare notes before sharing their thoughts; yet they both reached the same conclusions while traveling very different paths. 


Monday we will celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a time when we know the fulfillment of his dream is possible.  Examples like Diane and Dr. Coles quietly make this point in our community every day, while the inauguration of our 44th President next week sends a message to the world.  Our highest ideals are battered every day by the worst of human nature.  We should take the opportunity on Monday to celebrate with the “better angels of our nature.”