The Human Sector

People seem to have a need to divide themselves into categories; a need that I think has produced far more misery than good through the course of human history.  Bob Dylan once musically observed that, “Even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked,” which is one way of saying we are all equal in the eyes of deity and/or the law.

The notion of the “public sector” versus the “private sector” seems to me to be just one more example of a misguided impulse to separate ourselves from one another.  We are all members of the “human sector” and, like it or not, are consequently capable of a wide range of compassion, cruelty, competence, courage and a host of other “c” attributes both good and bad (caring, cynicism, caducity, callousness, conceit, etc.).

I cannot, for example, get the local newspaper to deliver my daily paper to the front porch of my home.  The newspaper is a small but important pleasure to me that has been a part of my daily ritual for as long as I can remember.  I can speak from my years of experience as a newspaper delivery boy in the 1960s that it should not be a herculean task to insure that my paper finds its way to my covered porch every day as opposed to being thrown under my car, onto my lawn or tossed to other remote locations.  I’m sure my neighbors get some amusement out of watching me conduct the morning hunt for the daily news in various states of undress, but I do not.  I am equally unimpressed with the soggy mess I receive when the paper is delivered to my lawn before the sprinklers are activated.   I have spoken with the carrier, written an e-mail message to the newspaper, and talked with an employee over the phone during the past year without any noticeable effect.  I could cancel my subscription, but I would hate to deny myself the opportunity to read about all the stupid things I do on a regular basis.

This morning I found the paper lying next to the left rear wheel of my car and on page 2 of the Democrat Herald I read the following headline:  “City to offer customers a deal in billing error.”  The article explained that, in 2004, someone at the City made an error resulting in the loss of more than $180,000 in revenue to the wastewater fund.  The error was recently discovered and steps were taken to correct it, but in the end all sewer customers will pay a little more for their service to make up for the amount lost.  Public sector employees make mistakes, too. 

The worst example, however, of private sector incompetence I’ve experienced recently came from my bank.  I was told by a bank employee that they were offering an interest-free credit card for one year and that I could sign up on the spot if I was interested.  I just happened to have a need to help out my daughter with a large purchase and thought this might be a relatively inexpensive way to be of assistance.  I willingly paid a $350 fee associated with the transaction, but was surprised when my first statement arrived and I found I was paying 22 percent interest.  I made several trips to the bank and a couple of phone calls trying to resolve the issue before being told that I should have read the promotional materials more carefully.  I paid off the card and I’m terminating all accounts with a bank I’ve done business with since 1967.  I guess I was really the incompetent party for choosing to believe what I was told.

If my goal was to document all the mistakes made by public and private sector people and organizations over the past year, I would probably need a computer with more capacity.  The human sector screws up with distressing frequency and we would do better to focus on preventing and correcting errors than on blaming one particular group for our problems.

Compression Depression

Oregon city managers are expected to understand public finance and our state’s property tax system, and I believe I can reasonably claim to meet those expectations after working closely with both issues for more than 27 years.  Unfortunately, while I have a good understanding of how things work, I have little influence when it comes to making them work well.  Oregon’s public finance system is broken, and people throughout the state will pay the price in the form of increasing fees (tuition at state universities, for example) and service reductions until it is fixed.

The latest evidence of this problem arrived in Albany when the Linn County assessor reported the amount taxing jurisdictions will lose to compression in this fiscal year and the newest increase in assessed value of property.  Albany is likely to receive about $950,000 less in property taxes this year than we projected, despite the fact that assessed value remains about $500 million less than market value within the Linn County portion of the city.  About $300,000 of the difference between projection and reality was the result of a mistake in reading a tax statement from Benton County, but the remaining $650,000 is simply money lost to compression and a reduced rate of growth in assessed value.

We maintain sufficient reserves to deal with the problem this year; and, as is true every year, we will not spend all the money we budgeted.  These temporary solutions do not, however, resolve the underlying problem.  We are likely to see steadily increasing losses to compression as more properties within the city reach the point where assessed value equals market value, and it is unlikely we will see substantial increases in total assessed value in the near future.  The Council has approved an emergency services levy that will be on the May election ballot; but, even if successful, the levy will not cover the resources we are losing now and expect to lose in the years ahead.

I have asked the directors to discuss the problem within the departments and bring back some ideas about how best to develop a plan for Council consideration.  I believe we have no choice but to cut expenses, but I also believe we can reduce the effects of the cuts on the public we serve and our employees by redistributing resources within the organization. 

The Council will begin discussions on this issue at their Monday work session, although I expect the initial focus will be on the nature and extent of the problem.  In the short-term, I am asking all employees to look at every expense more critically and implementing a General Fund hiring freeze through the completion of our budget process. 

The website,, shows Oregon having the 40th lowest tax burden among the states while the Tax Foundation, which adjusts tax burden to personal income, rates Oregon at the national average.  By any measure, our state has relatively low public expenditures; and our services are starting to reflect that fact.

A Question of Honesty

How honest should we be?  Various sources claim the average person tells multiple lies every day.  I came across the following passage after a quick Internet search:  “Men tell twice as many lies as women, it emerged yesterday.  Researchers found they tell six fibs a day on average to their partner, boss and work colleagues, but women come out with just three.  The study of 2,000 Britons also revealed that the most common lie told by both sexes was:  ‘Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine.’”

Read more:

I don’t know how fair it is to generalize from a 2009 study of 2,000 Britons except to say that I have no reason to doubt the results.  I don’t think many of us analyze everything we say to insure that it is wholly true; and I suspect that if we did, we might be surprised by the number of “fibs” we tell. 

I come across a work-related situation lately that caused me to consider these questions.  The National League of Cities (NLC) offers a prescription drug discount program to its members that claims, among other things, “Cities of all sizes have seen big savings – from nearly $500,000 for Clarksburg, W.Va., to more than $325,000 for Detroit.”  The whole truth is that the reported savings to individual pharmacy users are what they would have saved if they had purchased the drugs at “usual and customary” prices that less than ten percent of the population actually pays.  There is no way to measure actual savings because the pharmacies have no way of knowing whether the people using the cards would have used an equally accessible card offering the same discount.  My initial reaction to this information was anger that the NLC appeared to be misleading its members about the benefits of the prescription drug program.  I learned after some investigation, however, that the program apparently does reduce the number of people who pay “usual and customary” pharmacy costs and that these people are probably those who can least afford to pay the full price.  The promotion may not give the whole story, but the bottom line is that the program is helping people.

I think citizens often get angry at government for the same reason I was upset with the NLC.  We run programs or confront issues that are complex and difficult to explain; so we try to simplify what we say to make it understandable to as many people as possible.  We generally don’t have the resources to accurately convey every nuance of an important issue.  We are not alone.  Newspapers and the media in general confront the same problem.  The inability to convey the whole story coupled with the natural desire to put the best face on a problem leads to distrust and skepticism.

The cure for my suspicion and anger was a patient employee of the NLC who took the time to explain his program and answer my questions without being defensive or showing resentment that I was taking up his valuable time.  Our conversation was a good reminder to me of the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity to build trust one person at a time.  Women are apparently better at this than men; so I am resolved to improve my performance in the future. The unfortunate side effect of this resolve may be that anyone who asks how I’m doing from now on may hear more than they really want to know.