Vacation Time

My wife, mother-in-law, and I will be in Paris when this blog is posted on March 25.  I am traveling to Cardiff, Wales, to attend a semiannual meeting of the International City-County Management Association’s (ICMA) International Committee and have included some time to do sightseeing in England and France.  I always feel obligated to explain that these trips are appropriately done at my own expense with no contribution from any government agency or ICMA.  The City may receive some incidental benefits from my participation on a professional committee, but I enjoy travel and will be the primary beneficiary of this adventure.

We are usually able to attend these meetings every other year, after we’ve had enough time to save some money for increasingly costly air fares, hotels, and meals.  Last year, the meeting was in New Zealand, where I would love to visit; but my budget dictated otherwise.  I was able to make the meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2009, where I moderated an international discussion on the economic crisis.  Participants included local government officials and economists from Europe and the U.S., and I was able to take away some useful perspective that I believe I was able to apply in Albany.

I am sure there is something wrong with a person who essentially attends meetings for a living and chooses to attend more while on vacation.  The reason I do it is that I enjoy the chance to exchange ideas with people I would not ordinarily have the chance to meet.  A British colleague made a great presentation on performance audits at a meeting in Dublin four years ago, and I gained some insight from his experience that would not have been possible without the opportunity to hear and question him.

I’m also looking forward to showing my mother-in-law some great places in Europe, where she has never been.  My wife has laid out a travel agenda that is likely to exhaust all of us and is sure to produce some group crabbiness.  My hope is that we are still speaking to one another after a safe return from our travels.

As we prepare to leave, I always feel some trepidation about the long jet ride and the many inconveniences of being away from home.  I don’t recall many trips where everything has gone exactly as I’d hoped, and I doubt that this one will be an exception.  I am equally sure, however, that we will learn some important lessons and have some great stories to tell when we return.  It should be a great vacation.

Us versus Them

Many Oregonians have forgotten our state was once a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan, which focused most of its hatred, not on blacks, but on Catholics in the 1920s.  Some may enjoy the irony of Klan gatherings in Ashland and Lane County pictured on the Oregon Encyclopedia website at the following link:  Ku Klux Klan | Oregon Encyclopedia – Oregon History and Culture.

Oregon probably has no more reason to be ashamed of its past and present prejudices than any other place, just as Oregonians have no right to feel superior about our progressive roots.  The sad truth is that people everywhere have had a disturbing tendency to blame and persecute other groups of people for problems real and imagined.

A vocal minority, led by people who make money by saying outrageous things, has recently decided to single out public employees as greedy, incompetent bureaucrats.  The idea has been blended with some long-standing resentment of unions to produce a toxic mix of bad feelings and bad legislation aimed at people we rely on to deliver essential services every day.  Demonizing teachers, fire fighters, police, or even city managers makes just about as much sense as the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan.  Public employees, like Catholics or any other group, represent the full range of human virtues and failings.  We are not more or less responsible for the national recession or state budget problems than other comparably sized groups.

The vast majority of American workers do not work for government.  Bureau of Labor Statistics report that about 20-22 million, or 16 percent, of the 130 million U.S. workers are employed in the public sector; and this ratio has not changed substantially in the last 35 years.  Any group of this size obviously has some influence over public policy; but it is certainly not a controlling influence, even if it were safe to assume that public employees consistently vote as a group.

I believe it is a completely legitimate public policy question to discuss and debate appropriate levels of compensation for public employees and do not want to leave the impression that concerns about pay or benefits should be equated to the name-calling and other nonsense directed against those who work in the public sector.  The price of ridicule, contempt, and limiting opportunities for public employees, however, will ultimately be a decline in quality of those willing to serve.  A poorly performing public sector carries most of the same negative consequences as a dysfunctional private sector.  Poor customer service, declining prosperity, and corruption are just a sample of the problems bad private or public employees create.

Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan was not notorious for violence or lynching.  Klan members were simply ordinary folks who believed they could make their world better by persecuting and harassing various minority groups.  It was a dumb idea in the 1920s, and it’s a dumb idea now.

Healthy Town, U.S.A.

Pessimists need read no further.  This post responds to an article in the March 3rd edition of The New York Times, entitled “Broke Town, U.S.A.”  The article is thoughtful, well written, and appears to be accurate.  It is, however, a narrow view of a broad issue.

Cities across the U.S. are dealing with serious financial challenges, not unlike the problems facing many businesses and individual citizens.  The Times article describes how one city, Vallejo, California, has declared bankruptcy and a handful of others are considering the option.  Cities with the biggest problems are those that incurred a relatively large amount of general obligation debt prior to what we now call the “Great Recession.”  These cities assumed this debt with the belief that their primary revenue sources would be stable into the future and allow them to pay off the amount owed over a long period of time.  It is the same kind of reasoning most of used when we decided to purchase our homes using a 30-year fixed rate mortgage as financing.  Just as many families who have experienced job loss have defaulted on home loans, some cities that have seen large reductions of sales or property tax revenue could default on general obligation debt.  Most will not because cities have other options.

Cities can reduce costs and, in many cases, raise taxes.  These options are being exercised by local governments in the U.S. every day.  We have very little general obligation debt in Albany; yet we are reducing costs to correspond with the amount of money we receive.  The “Broke Town” article rightly points out that the cost of reducing expenses is borne most heavily by average citizens and public employees rather than by those who invest in municipal bonds.  The burden on citizens would be even heavier in the long-term, though, if a city chooses to default on debt payments.  Albany’s debt is primarily secured by utility payments that typically do not decrease dramatically when the economy is poor.  Additionally, our principal creditor is the state of Oregon’s revolving loan fund, a source that has never foreclosed on a loan and one that is unlikely to ever do so.

I believe most cities in the United States are financially healthy despite recent challenges.  Our starting point is so high relative to most of the rest of the world that any setback is understandably seen as a serious problem.  I disagree with those who seem to revel in disaster that cities, or whatever level of government you choose to name, will never recover from the current hard times.  Good health is never a permanent condition.  It is, rather, a status that requires foresight, discipline, and effort.  U.S. cities, like U.S. citizens, have the resources to turn things around if we have the will to use them appropriately.  I believe we do.