Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental Health Awareness Month always reminds me of a quiet Sunday in Oakridge, Oregon, nearly 18 years ago.  My family and I lived in a secluded house, about a quarter mile from our nearest neighbor, at the end of a country road.  Our only visitors were friends and family who usually required a fair amount of guidance to find the place.

I left home one Sunday morning in 1994 to attend a League of Oregon Cities conference in Eugene just after my family went through the usual routine of preparing for and attending church.  Several hours later, my wife, children, and at least one friend from church returned to the house to find an unfamiliar truck parked in the driveway.  My wife assumed the truck belonged to someone who might have been riding with me to the conference, but she was surprised when the children told her the door was locked as they tried to enter the house.  Her surprise at the locked door was replaced by shock when a young man threw open the door and told everyone to come on in.  The children didn’t hesitate and piled into the house before my wife could inquire about why the intruder was in our home.  She reached the door and found the young man at the kitchen sink washing dishes.  I might have just acknowledged our good fortune at finding a cheap housekeeper and let things go at that, but my wife is more particular.  She asked the person to identify himself, and he responded with his name plus the statement, “James sent me.”  Many of the male members of our family are named “James,” including my wife’s brother; so she assumed my brother-in-law had sent a worker over to do something for his company without bothering to inform us.  You have to know my brother-in-law to understand why this was a reasonable conclusion.

 Evelyn’s conversation with the young man at the sink took a bad turn as she asked more questions and the answers became more bizarre.  She became really worried when he told her that because she refused to have his child he had come to kill her.  Her concern was heightened by the butcher knife the intruder was holding as he continued washing dishes.  My wife knew she couldn’t leave the house with the children scattered inside, and she had no immediate opportunity to call 911.  Thinking quickly, she told our visitor that it was our family custom to gather and say a prayer after returning from church and she invited him to participate.  He apparently liked this idea, and Evelyn called the children together to join in the prayer.  She also told one of them to call 911, and one of our friends who was a police officer.  Following the prayer, she was able to send most of the children outside.

No deputies or state patrol officers were available to respond to the 911 call; so it was dispatched to the city police chief.  He and his wife had been over to our house for dinner a few months earlier, but he hadn’t heard we’d moved since that time.  The new resident of our former home was more than a little surprised when a police car arrived, siren blaring and lights flashing, at her house along with a confused police chief wanting to know where the intruder was located.

Meanwhile, help arrived at our house in the form of an off-duty officer who quickly realized the situation and tried to keep the intruder calm while waiting for backup.  I was blissfully attending my conference in Eugene until a television reporter walked up to me to ask about the intruder in my home.  I knew nothing about it, of course; so I raced to a pay phone (pre-cell phone days) to find out what was happening.  By the time I got through, my family’s ordeal was more or less over.  Police reinforcements had arrived; and through the efforts of three large officers, the intruder was subdued and put into a patrol car.  He was taken to the mental health unit at a Eugene hospital and was eventually sent to the Veterans’ Hospital in Roseburg.  We later learned that our visitor was a Eugene veteran who had been released from the service after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. 

My wife is usually calm in emergencies, and I credit her strength for keeping our children safe through the incident.  I’m not sure what might have happened if I had been with the family when they arrived home from church.  Until that day, I had never had much reason to think about mental health and how it can suddenly become an issue in the lives of ordinary people.

A few weeks after the incident, my wife was refilling our sugar bowl when she noticed some objects in the bowl.  She pulled out a military necklace and ring the young man left there while he was washing dishes.  Finding those objects triggered an emotional response from my wife, who felt great compassion for the young man and his family. 

Mental Health Awareness Month is a good time to give thanks for what we have and to support the efforts of those working to treat mental illness.  The problem is never far away, and we can feel its effects at any time.

A Positive Outlet for Negative Energy

Grumpy old men like me now make up a larger share of the population than at any other time in our history; so I’m inclined to believe there is more carping against government (and just about everything else) than I saw or heard in the past.  The combination of cranky old timers and an explosion of media where they can express their feelings have given rise to a surplus of negative energy that could reduce our reliance on foreign oil if only we could find some positive outlets for the disaffected with too much time on their hands.  My recommendation would be to require anyone who makes a public complaint to run for public office in the next election.  Almost no one runs for Precinct Committee positions; so this requirement may not be as intimidating as it seems.  I know of many people, including me, who changed their point of view after learning more about democratic local government and how it works.

I majored in skiing at Central Oregon Community College, but I also took some political science courses my freshman year that caused me to question some of the actions of the Deschutes County Commission.  My father apparently got tired of my complaints and suggested I run for the Commission if I was so sure they were doing the wrong things.  I guess I wasn’t a shy 19-year-old because I took my father’s suggestion and filed to be a candidate in the May 1972 Primary Election.

I was probably fortunate to finish third in a five-way race for my party’s nomination, although I did earn the local newspaper’s endorsement and two members of my campaign committee went on to be elected mayor of Bend, with one eventually chairing the Deschutes County Commission.  My treasurer was a friend’s mother and my campaign manager was my college speech professor.  I think my sole contribution to the politics of Central Oregon was to help kindle or reignite the interest in local government of two people who went on to become outstanding leaders.

My father’s suggestion and his subsequent support, along with the contributions of my friends, taught me an important lesson that has helped me throughout my life.  I learned from them that if you don’t like the way things are, you should take positive action to change them.  I didn’t win my first election, but I did contribute to making things better in a way I never imagined.

I ran on a platform favoring home rule for the county and advocating for a regional wastewater treatment system.  My interest in sewage goes back more than 40 years.  I think the voters recognized that while I may have had some good ideas, I probably lacked the skills and experience to make them happen.  The election loss allowed me to go back to college and acquire the tools I needed to eventually find a career in local government.  I also learned that the issues confronted by local government are not as simple as they might seem, when all you are doing is thinking of clever ways to be critical.

I know we really can’t require people to run for public office, and I’m glad that many of those who complain aren’t interested in doing so.  To paraphrase Milton, they also serve who only stand and gripe, and there is much to be learned from the complaints of citizens.  I believe there is much more to be gained, however, from those who find ways to make positive contributions to their community.

Budget Message FY 2012-2013

I think most city managers would agree with Mark Twain’s observation that, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”  Constrained resources mean fewer people to deliver services which leads to more complaints and demands for service.  This unvirtuous cycle typically produces conflict, instability, and a tendency to place blame on the city manager.

Fortunately, the City of Albany’s financial condition remains relatively strong in 2012, despite the need to reduce personnel and continue austerity measures that have been in place for the past four years.  The City has placed a high priority on reducing personnel costs that represent the greatest inflationary factor in the budget, yet are the hardest expenses to control. 

Albany has reduced the number of budgeted positions from more than 428 in 2009 to less than 383 in the proposed budget; a decline of more than 10.5 percent in four years.  During this period, Albany’s population increased by 3.5 percent.  Last year’s budget funded 398.5 employees.  The cuts have been distributed throughout the organization and include a director’s position, supervisors, and line employees. 

The price of these reductions is a gradual decline in the scope and quality of some services.  Fire safety inspections, for example, have fallen well behind recommended schedules; and traffic enforcement is substantially lower than it was just a few years ago.  Some services, such as building inspection, have seen reduced demand that corresponds to staff reductions; so there has been little visible impact on the public.

Oregon Revised Statute 294.403 requires a budget message to:

(1) Explain the budget document;

(2) Contain a brief description of the proposed financial policies of the municipal corporation for the ensuing year or ensuing budget period;

(3) Describe in connection with the financial policies of the municipal corporation, the important features of the budget document;

(4) Set forth the reason for salient changes from the previous year or budget period in appropriation and revenue items;

(5) Explain the major changes in financial policy; and

(6) Set forth any change contemplated in the municipal corporation’s basis of accounting and explain the reasons for the change and the effect of the change on the operations of the municipal corporation.

Albany’s budget document is prepared in accordance with standards established by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) to receive their Distinguished Budget Presentation Award.  Last year’s product contained 464 pages of summary, explanation, tables, graphs, and pictures.  The 2013 document is of similar length and quality.  The strength of Albany’s budget document is the comprehensive information it provides about the City’s finances; however, that is also its greatest weakness.  The document contains so much information it is difficult for most citizens to access and understand.  The Executive Summary and User’s Guide are perhaps the best places to start to understand the document and the information it contains.  City staff welcomes the opportunity to answer questions about the budget, and the City’s website also contains comprehensive financial information.

More than 16 pages of the City’s financial policies are included in the budget, and most require no further explanation in the Budget Message.  The most important policy, in my opinion, requires the City to recognize the balance between revenue and expenses by maintaining reserves, conservatively estimating revenues, controlling expenses, and doing both internal and external audits of financial records.  The proposed budget maintains this commitment, although it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the budget as revenues decline and expenses increase.

Any salient changes from the previous budget year can be explained as responses to reductions in revenue and increases in expenses or attempts to gain efficiencies by reorganizing personnel.  The latter is particularly true in the Public Works Department where substantial savings will be realized by eliminating several supervisory positions.  Eliminating funding for the Community Development Department Director is an example of an extraordinary measure to avoid layoffs of line employees.

There are no changes proposed in the City’s financial policies or basis of accounting for FY 2013.  The City strongly supports best practices that include an award-winning website that features detailed financial information, an annual independent audit reviewed by an audit committee composed of policy makers, strong internal controls, and conformance with GFOA reporting standards.

“For the love of money is the root of all evil,” according to 1st Timothy 6:10 in the New Testament; and whether one subscribes to the admonition of Paul or the wit of Mark Twain, cities require resources to deliver services.  The proposed FY 2013 City of Albany Budget will maintain something close to existing service levels in most departments; but if additional cuts are necessary in the future, service reductions will follow.