Just Like Home (sort of)

While looking at the city budget not long ago, I realized that if you removed three zeros from many of our income and spending figures you would be left with something resembling a household budget.  Each year, we receive between $75-90 million in revenue and spend something close to that amount.  We have about $120 million in debt, most of which is the result of our water and wastewater treatment plants.

A middle-class household with a decent income of $90,000 a year would commonly have a mortgage of at least $120,000.  The City’s reserves fluctuate, but currently range as high as $50 million, as opposed to a household that might have $50,000 in savings, an IRA, or similar program.  Just like the City, not everything a household earns is available for discretionary expenses.  Federal and state governments dictate that a certain percentage of our household incomes are dedicated to taxes, while the City is also required to abide by mandates from other levels of government.

Families have many competing demands for resources, and I’m sure most of us feel that we never have enough money to meet all of them.  Most people would understand that a household with an annual income of $90,000 is not broke, even if it had to cut back on some expenses to pay all the bills.  The City is in a similar position.  We have a steady income with many different opinions about how we should spend it.

The analogy of removing three zeros breaks down a little when you start to compare family size to the population of a city.  Albany has about 50,000 residents, and most families do not have 50 members.  Mine sometimes feels that big when I’m trying to help the children in college, buy Christmas presents for the grandchildren, or assist aging in-laws.  My family certainly has fewer people involved in the decision-making process than the City does.

An outsider looking at a family budget could probably find many ways to save money, partly because they would have no real understanding of why the money is being spent.  We could certainly reduce debt and increase savings at our household if we didn’t choose to pay a tithe to our church or travel to visit aging relatives in another state.  The difference between my family and the City, of course, is that our spending only has to reconcile the values of our family, while the City must justify what it spends to our entire population.

The three zeros I wrote about removing at the beginning of this post don’t take up much space on a page, but they do represent a fair amount of complexity.  Every budget item has its own story, making a city budget much longer and harder to explain than our household expenses.  The basic principles, however, are very similar.  Income needs to exceed spending to keep the wolf away from the door.

Mediocrity

The recent upheaval surrounding the firing of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere has given new distinction to the noun “mediocrity.”  I first heard it used by Nike cofounder Phil Knight; and, since then, it seems to have become the standard criticism of everyone involved in the president’s termination.  Lariviere used the term three times in the beginning paragraphs of an e-mail message I received earlier this week:  “The recent salary increases strengthened our fragile hold on our best faculty but more such efforts are necessary if the university is to avoid becoming mired in mediocrity.  Oregonians deserve better than struggling to avoid mediocrity. If we hope to find a way out of this march to mediocrity in public higher education, Oregonians deserve our best thinking about new approaches.”

Money seems to be the measure of mediocrity in the higher education debate, and there is reason to be disturbed by decades-long trends.  Oregon is, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States, the only state that spends more on corrections than it does on higher education.  I believe, however, that there is more to mediocrity than money.

While President Lariviere talks about the “impoverished” University of Oregon, the evidence I see when I walk through the campus of my alma mater tells another story.  Beautiful new buildings, well-tended landscaping, and a record number of students give the sense of a vastly more prosperous school than the one I attended a few decades ago.  The University also claims that this year’s group of incoming freshmen has the highest grade point average in school history.  Just a few years ago, only Louisiana had a lower student enrollment growth rate in its university system than Oregon.  Ironically, high unemployment turns out to be a good thing for university enrollment; and students are now paying a much higher percentage of their costs than they did when I was in school.

My loyalty to the University of Oregon is based mostly on the great experience I had there as a graduate student and the preparation I received for my career.  I remain in contact with several of my professors and still attend events sponsored by my department.  I do not believe the University was mediocre when I was enrolled there, but I am concerned about the change in emphasis within my department and how the program has moved away from training local government managers.  Securing more resources for the University will not fix this problem.

I do not know President Lariviere, and I don’t know whether or not his firing was justified.  I do know that spending more money is only one improvement strategy to avoid mediocrity; and, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I know it is often unsuccessful.  Mediocrity seems to be a product of bad judgment and inadequate effort, rather than something that happens because there isn’t enough money to do everything people would like to see done.