The Age of Insecurity

It recently occurred to me that many people who work for the City today have no recollection of mid-Twentieth Century public school training designed to protect children in the event of a nuclear attack.  I am sure most people my age recall crawling under their desks and/or being marched down to a basement marked by the sign shown below:

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It’s hard to know the effects of living in a world where potential mass annihilation is an accepted fact of life and is even drilled into school children.  Every generation has had to live with personal insecurity about mortality, illness, starvation, and poverty; however, I suspect people born before WWII thought little about human extinction.

I was raised with knowledge of the Doomsday Clock, which, according to Wikipedia, “… is a symbolic clock face, maintained since 1947 by the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago.  The closer the clock is to midnight, the closer the world is estimated to be to global disaster.  As of January 14, 2010 (2010-01-14)[update], the Doomsday Clock now stands at six minutes to midnight.”  Midnight is the symbolic end of the world.

The focus over the past 60 years on “midnight” may help explain why some people seem almost eager to predict doom, either in the form of natural disasters or man-made catastrophes.  I was reading a blog yesterday where the writer was very smug about putting his assets into gold as a hedge against impending economic collapse.  I like the idea of preparing for an emergency; but gold’s value is subject to huge fluctuations, and you can’t eat it.

Most of us are in a position to have a 72-hour kit available in our homes.  These kits can be the difference between relative independence during an emergency and complete reliance on the efforts of others.  Taking a few minutes to put together a kit from stores you may already have in your home is relatively easy.  The following link is one of many that provide guidance on what to include in a 72 hour kit:  http://www.nationalterroralert.com/72hourkit/.

The City is in the process of updating our Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan to assist us in emergency response planning.  This update requires managers to take refresher courses on use of the Incident Command System employed by federal and state agencies during emergencies.  The carrot for city participation in this planning is eligibility for certain federal grants, but the real value is forcing us to think about a systematic response to likely emergencies.

I’m not sure how much good it would have done to crawl under a student desk in the event of a nuclear attack, and I’m grateful I’ve never had to put that training to the test.  I’m hopeful any emergencies or disasters we experience in the future will be limited in scope, duration, and intensity.  I know that taking the simple step to prepare 72-hour kits for everyone in our homes is prudent and effective emergency preparation.  If we are truly living in the Age of Insecurity, the peace of mind we can achieve with a little preparation is worth the investment.

Cleaning Things Up

Many years ago, my wife and I rented a house that was sold while we were living in it.  Shortly after the sale, the new owners told us they planned to occupy the house and were giving us 30-days’ notice to vacate.  We soon found a new place to live and, after the usual inconveniences of moving a household to a new place, went back to the old home to clean it.  My wife is very particular about keeping a clean house; so the kids and I were ordered to shampoo carpets, wipe down cupboards, scrub the bathrooms, and generally put the place in better order than we found it when we moved in.  The house, from my perspective, gleamed when we left it for the last time.

I was somewhat dismayed when the new owner proposed to return only a portion of our security deposit because the house was not cleaned to his satisfaction.  Apparently, he and his wife felt that our failure to clean the dust out of the unimproved attic (the kind with uncovered insulation) which we had never been in during the year we lived in the house, justified a deduction from the deposit.  As you can tell, I quickly forgot the incident and have no lingering resentment over our treatment.

The story illustrates the point that while cleanliness may be next to godliness, there is no common agreement on just how clean you have to be to qualify.  We see the same principle at work in the city nearly every day.

I believe our most common complaint comes from neighbors upset about the condition of someone else’s property located near theirs.  The treasures that one person can’t bring themselves to discard are the accumulations of junk that are driving his or her neighbors to distraction.  Knee-high grass and untended landscaping might be one person’s notion of being “earth friendly,” while the people next door see it as a clear attempt to devalue their property.

My purpose in this blog is to commend the work of the City’s Code Squad for working across departments to find ways to resolve these conflicts with respect for the concerns of all parties.  Last week’s Big Pick-Up was a great example of helping to clean things up without antagonizing those who may be neatness-impaired.  There were too many people involved to recognize everyone, but I really appreciated the support of Mayor Konopa and Councilor Coburn and the leadership of Marilyn Smith, Rick Barnett, Lynn Hinrichs, Mary Gaeta, Kim Kagelaris, and Heather Slocum.  I think most people prefer to live in a community that looks clean, and I know I do.

I was reminded how important these issues can become when I saw a news story last week about an ex-Marine who shot and killed one of his neighbors over a dog peeing on his lawn.  I’ve written before about the lady who picketed City Hall for several days in one community where I worked because she didn’t think we were aggressive enough in enforcing our nuisance code against one of her neighbors.  Keeping Albany clean is more than a matter of satisfying our tastes; it’s an important part of keeping the peace and making the town a good place to live.

We Aren’t Broke

I was reading an online newspaper the other day and ran across a story where an Oregon city manager was explaining to the public that, despite budget cuts, the city he worked for isn’t “broke.”  The story illustrates the difficulty of explaining complex issues in terms that can be commonly understood.

I think everyone knows the world economy has taken a beating over the past two years and that most individuals, families, businesses, and governments have felt the impact of higher unemployment rates, investment losses, declining home values, and reduced earnings.  In my family, two of my sons lost jobs, my home equity has fallen by around 20 percent, and I could have put a good portion of my retirement contributions into investment funds over the past five years in a sock and realized a comparable rate of return.  We have cut back on some expenses, but I consider my family to be fortunate and we are not broke.

The City faces some similar conditions.  We will receive more money from taxes, fees, and other sources in the coming year than we did last year and we are able to sustain the vast majority of services we have traditionally delivered.  Our problem is not that we are losing money; our problem is that our expenses are increasing faster than our revenues and that most of our funds are not “fungible.”  We have, in other words, sufficient money to do some things and not enough to do others.  Our urban renewal agency, for example, receives property tax income that can only be used for purposes designated in our renewal plan.  Consequently, the agency will have several million dollars to be used for projects like renovating buildings or improving public facilities in the urban renewal area, while the City does not have enough resources to maintain Parks and Recreation services at existing levels.

Our proposed budget for 2011 shows total available resources of nearly $185 million, but that figure includes beginning fund balances, internal service funds and reserve funds, and is not representative of our actual resources. We received, for example, almost $84.5 million in FY 2009, representing an increase of a little more than $5.6 million, or 7 percent, over our total revenues from FY 2008.  Our revenue in FY 2010 will show an even bigger increase because of the $18.5 million PepsiCo settlement.  I am sure, however, that if the settlement money is excluded, we will see a reduction in the rate of increase between 2009 and 2010.  The reduction in the rate of increase is likely to be even greater between the current year and 2011.  It’s hard to argue you are broke when your revenues have been steadily increasing over time.  What the total numbers do not show, of course, is that much of the money we receive comes in the forms of loans/bonds that have to be repaid or grants that can only be used for certain purposes.  These numbers can be highly variable from year to year, so even when we show a seven percent increase in revenue between 2009 and 2010, we may actually have less money available for operating purposes.

The City of Albany is certainly not broke, but we have to reduce expenses in some areas because we are not receiving sufficient revenue to sustain them at current levels.   We anticipated this problem several years ago and began increasing reserves to help maintain services during the lean years.  Our discretionary reserves are declining to a point where we need to make cuts, including a small number of layoffs, to insure we can meet future obligations.  I wish these cuts could be avoided, just as I wish my sons had jobs to better support their families.  I remain optimistic about the future, however, and believe with prudent management we will continue to provide needed services and avoid more layoffs.  We do, however, reflect the circumstances of our citizens and I do not expect the City’s financial condition to get substantially better before we see increased prosperity in the community.