Lessons from a Tragedy

Albany received some bad news last week when we learned that a local high school student was allegedly making bombs in his home, apparently with the intention of detonating them at his school.  I am deeply sympathetic with the parents of this young man, who now faces a difficult path.  I am also extremely grateful that someone stepped forward to report the threat and that our Police Department and other emergency responders handled the situation in a way that prevented physical harm to anyone.

My wife and I watched a late night news report a few days after the story broke where the announcer talked about the community being on edge as more details emerged.  I don’t know about anyone else, but rather than being on edge, I was feeling good that a disaster was averted with no injuries or loss of life.  The number of times students actually do widespread physical harm at school is very small; and, while it is sad to realize it could happen here, it is reassuring that responsible people did the right things to make sure it didn’t.  Albany remains a safe place for our children, in part because most of us care enough and are well enough informed to act when we see a threat.

Our School Resource Officer (SRO) program plays a role in helping to keep schools safe.  Early in my career, I had concerns about uniformed police officers patrolling schools; but I’ve learned that SROs do much more prevention than they do enforcement.  Students learn to trust the police through their SROs and they also learn about things like reporting dangerous situations.  The City and school district have maintained their commitment to this program through tough budget times, maintaining an outstanding partnership that serves our children well.

I have been impressed throughout the current ordeal with the teamwork among different jurisdictions to safely respond to the situation.  Law enforcement agencies from around the state worked with the school district and other emergency responders to make sure the school was safe and that there was no threat to neighbors in the homes where the explosives were found.  I am unaware of any problems with communications or operating procedures throughout the incident.  Superintendent Maria Delapoer also wrote an informative and reassuring letter to parents and the community at large to let everyone know that school would resume as normal after an eventful Memorial Day extended weekend.

The slight detour I encountered on my morning run this week as I dodged television reporters near the high school at 5:30 a.m. was a small price to pay for the knowledge that this story will probably have a short life.  I am most thankful that no students were harmed and we have some time to reflect on what more we might be able to do to make sure there is not a tragedy in the future.

Things that Fall from the Sky

Several years ago, I read a news story about a guy who was stopped at a traffic light in Seattle when a car on the upper story of a parking garage went through a barrier and fell onto the unsuspecting motorist’s roof.  I know the poor fellow who was waiting at the light was killed, but I’ve forgotten the fate of the driver who caused the accident.  The recent tragedies in Oklahoma, Boston, and Texas are additional reminders that bad things often happen to us even when we are doing nothing wrong.  The City received some news this week that, although much less tragic, falls into this category.

It seems that the state of Oregon made errors over a number of years when assessing the value of Hewlett-Packard’s property in Corvallis and recently lost a court battle that will cost Benton County taxing jurisdictions about $9 million.  I am not certain how or why an error in Corvallis ends up costing the City of Albany something more than $400,000, but I am assured by people who know more about Oregon’s convoluted property tax system than I, that it will.

We just completed our Budget Committee hearings last week, and our process did not anticipate the loss of $400,000.  We believe this will be a one-time expense that can be covered by reserve funds, but the bad news is this cost places an additional strain on an already stressed General Fund budget.  We are fortunate that our loss is small compared to the more than $2 million owed by the City of Corvallis, and we can count our blessings that we are not facing Eugene’s $6 million budget gap.  Unfortunately, the misery in other jurisdictions and our sympathy for them does nothing to pay our bills.

Our challenge will be to continue to control costs after years of cutting expenses.  I do not believe we can ask voters for additional tax resources while unemployment remains high and when we are steadily raising water and sewer rates to cover both capital and operating needs.  Many if not most City employees have already assumed additional responsibilities to cover the loss of those who have retired or left the organization.  I do not see this situation changing in the near future.

I take more than a little comfort from the knowledge that adjustments to our budget should not lead to position cuts or service reductions and that most of the economic news in recent days has been positive.  We are seeing more building permits, new retail development, and some revival of interest from manufacturing firms.  We are also ready to handle most of the bad things that fall from the sky, but it is always nice to see the occasional rainbow.

Dead Skunks

It would be an understatement to say that I am proud of my children.  I have written about them many times in this column, and I have even occasionally included pictures without their consent.  My sons and daughter are, of course, no longer children, but adults with families and careers of their own.  I received a call from my youngest son earlier this week letting me know that he experienced something as an assistant city administrator that has never happened to me during my somewhat longer career.  It seems that a disgruntled resident of Adair Village put a dead skunk on the steps of City Hall as a way of punishing the City for sins real or imagined.

My son was incensed but also smart enough to realize that whoever put the skunk on the steps had to do more disagreeable work to get it there than the unfortunate Public Works employees who had to remove it.  I acknowledged that while I have been involved with the removal of dead rats and have heard more than my share of dead animal complaints, I have never had to deal with a dead skunk.  I also pointed out that the advantage of being in a small organization is that it is more difficult for employees to claim that the really nasty jobs are the responsibility of another department.  The disadvantage is that you often end up having to handle them yourself.

Unhappy people are a part of nearly every job, and I learned long ago that the best first response to complaints is to listen to them with respect.  I have seen very angry people change quickly once they learned that their concerns were important to me and that I was sincerely interested in helping them.  I think my son has also learned that lesson, and I believe it is one of the many reasons he will be a successful city administrator.  I’m sure we could both do without dead skunks or other disgusting ways that people sometimes express their opinions, but the rewards of this work generally outweigh the occasional disagreeable task.  I should add that my son would ordinarily have buried the skunk himself, but he was the only one in the office that day and was concerned that visitors might take offense if the only person who could help them smelled like a dead skunk.

It is gratifying to see your children grow up to be caring and responsible people.  It almost makes me forget that I was ready to banish a couple of them to a penal colony somewhere when they were teenagers.  We celebrated my mother and father-in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary last weekend, and I know their greatest joy in that occasion was being surrounded by four generations of their family.