The Best Thing about Albany…

We all know Albany is a small city with about 50,000 residents located at the confluence of the Willamette and Calapooia Rivers.  We also know we live in the Willamette Valley, almost equidistant to the Oregon Coast and the Cascade Mountains.  All the cultural attractions of urban Oregon are a little over an hour away in Portland, and major college sports are as close as the nearby campus of the University of Oregon.  I guess Oregon State University may be a bit closer for those who are so inclined.

Some people complain about shopping in Albany, but you can buy almost anything you need and many things you might want in town, if you have the resources.  Finding a good job in Albany is a challenge at the moment; and even in the best of times, many people commute to work in communities up and down the Valley.  Albany is close to great educational opportunities at Linn-Benton Community College, OSU, the U of O, Western Oregon University, and Willamette University, to name a few.  The new medical school in Lebanon truly makes the area a center for higher education.

I have yet to experience a serious traffic problem in Albany, although I have heard stories of people getting trapped at the Queen Avenue intersection with Highway 99.  In the nearly five years I’ve worked in downtown, I do not believe it has ever taken me longer than 15 minutes to travel the four miles between City Hall and my house.  Occasionally, I drive over the bridge to North Albany during rush “minute” to check out the traffic; and I have rarely seen any problems.

Growth has certainly created more noise and congestion while reducing open space in the area.  Of course, growth has also made possible better medical facilities, more entertainment options, shopping, dining, and public services.  Albany’s tax rates are relatively low, and utility rates are relatively high.  Violent crime is comparatively rare while property crime occurs too often, despite some decline in recent years.  I think most people agree that Albany has outstanding emergency services, great parks, and exceptional libraries.

Albany’s historic districts, scenic riverfront, community theater, and countless service and social clubs all help make the community a nice place to live.  I think, however, that the best thing about Albany is the same thing that’s best about every community where I’ve ever lived.  People can make any place special or unendurable.  Albany is blessed with an abundance of people who care enough about the community to invest their time and talents to make it better.

At a time when there is great passion and division surrounding national and local political campaigns, I think it’s important to remember the small acts of consideration and kindness that make it possible to get things done, even when there are value differences and strong disagreement.  Our ability to work through these differences constructively may really be the best thing about Albany.

What’s Happening Around the Country?

Los Angeles Could Go Broke By June 30. Wilmington, North Carolina, May Have To Raise Property Tax, Introduce Pay Cuts.  Flint, Michigan, May Borrow More Than $13 Million To Fix Economic Woes.  Washington State Considering Raising Beer Tax.  Waynesboro, Virginia, Considering Layoffs, Public Safety Cuts to Reduce Budget.  Tucson, Arizona, City Manager Proposes Sales Tax Hike.  Fairfax County, Virginia, Supervisors Discussing Fee Increases.  Montana’s Governor Announces $40 Million in Spending Cuts.  White Plains, New York, Proposing “Highest City Tax Increase in 20 Years.”  Monroe, Michigan, Proposing Eliminating Police, Firemen to Fix Budget Woes.

The paragraph above is made up of headlines from a daily report I receive from the International City-County Management Association and represents a single day of many similar reports over the past year or two.  I listed this information to illustrate that state and local governments across the U.S. are struggling to maintain service levels in the same way many businesses are trying to stay afloat by cutting expenses, raising prices, or both.  I don’t recall a time over the past 25 years when financial stresses were so widespread among local governments, although I do remember when New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s.

Government, like virtually every household and business, will always experience some level of financial strain because there will never be enough money to satisfy everyone’s desires.  My experience also suggests that the more government delivers, the more people expect.  Even in “normal” times, policy makers have to make difficult decisions about what gets funded and what does not.  The job is complicated by countless rules allowing some money to be spent for “nonessential” purposes while “more important” services are perceived to be underfunded.

The City of Albany is responding to current financial stress by doing many of the same things other cities around the country are either considering or implementing.  We are already in the process of reducing service levels by cutting the size of our workforce through attrition (retirements, etc.) citywide and limited layoffs.  I am hopeful that as the economy recovers we can avoid further layoffs, but I expect we will have vacant positions in most departments for several years.  Our financial health as a city depends on calibrating our expenses to a sustainable revenue stream.  When many Albany citizens are unemployed or working in lower paying jobs, our revenues will be constrained and our expenses should be as well.  We will know the community is becoming more prosperous when unemployment declines and the total assessed value of properties in the city begins to rise as the result of new construction.

There are a number of positive signs that economic prospects are improving.  Several local employers are adding jobs in manufacturing and distribution, and retail sales appear to be increasing.  Building permits for new homes and commercial structures are well below where they were three years ago, but not far from historic averages.  Albany, in short, is doing better than many places around the country; and, with some short-term sacrifices, the City should be able to maintain core services at a time when they are most needed.

Good News from Lebanon

I think the last time I wrote about Lebanon in this blog, I was in Beirut.  This time, I’m writing about our neighbor to the east.  Lebanon and Linn County’s successful bid to bring a new Veterans’ Home to the area is good news for everyone in our region.  Veterans in need will have improved access to care, and many new jobs will be created to build and operate the facility.

As much as we might appreciate living in Albany, we really live in a region where we are rewarded or punished by the performance of our neighbors.  Prosperity in Lebanon, Millersburg, Tangent, Corvallis, or even Salem and Eugene, is good for Albany, while bad news in those communities is likely to be bad for us.  We shop in each other’s stores; use each other’s medical facilities; work in each other’s businesses; and generally take advantage of the opportunities available in each community.

Regional government is not a popular concept in the U.S., as we seem to prefer many small jurisdictions over a few large ones.  Perhaps the most visible reminder of our distrust of big government is the sheer number of government jurisdictions we support.  We all realize, of course, that people who live in Lebanon, Sweet Home, or Corvallis are dramatically different from those of us living in Albany.  We also know we need separate units of government to deal with education, jails, rural issues, and, in some cases, cemeteries, irrigation, or fire protection.  Our Council of Governments helps coordinate many of our efforts but generally has no ability to compel cooperation.

I am not arguing that we should attempt to create a regional government in our part of the Willamette Valley.  Metro, the limited regional government in the Portland area, continues to be a controversial model after nearly 30 years of service, although support seems much stronger today than in the organization’s early days.  I do think it’s important to remind ourselves of our interdependence with our neighbors and to act on that knowledge.  There will be times, like now, when community interests intersect at a project like the Veterans’ Home and times when they collide.  Communities that develop the habit of cooperation will be able to work through differences productively.

Albany is fortunate to have greatly improved relations with our neighbors in recent years.  We are close partners with Millersburg on critical water and wastewater infrastructure projects, and we both contribute to our local economic development corporation.  Our secondary water intake is located on the Santiam River near Lebanon and also serves that city’s water system.  We are active members of the Cascades West Council of Governments, and we participate in a number of regional partnerships, such as the Benton-Lane-Linn Water Study Group.

Community leaders in Lebanon and Linn County government deserve great credit for bringing an important new facility and its accompanying services to our region.  It’s another example of how cooperation and good relationships among local governments produce results that benefit all of us.