Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

My youngest son, Patrick, and I are taking an often talked-about but rarely acted upon hiking adventure over the next week as we attempt to travel between Odell Lake and Crater Lake in four days.  I know this experience will be painful and can only hope the rewards outweigh the potential blisters, cramps, lack of sleep, and complete exhaustion that accompany an older city manager who spends too much time typing on a computer and too little time hiking through the woods.

I have traveled through the Odell to Crater Lake country many times in my life, although this will be my first hike of this section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I’ve found that I can’t really appreciate the beauty of a place until I get the chance to walk around in it.  I also know that hiking with my sons and grandchildren is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  I can picture in my mind a number of hikes with Patrick when he was a boy, and I will never forget his enthusiasm for these adventures.  It’s been about 20 years since we hiked into Andrew Lake with a friend’s Welsh corgi we were looking after, who turned out to have a range proportional to the length of his legs.  Corgis are great dogs, but their stubby little legs were apparently designed to dig out burrowing creatures rather than for taking long hikes.  When Caleb (the corgi) gave out, I packed him for a fair distance before needing a rest.  Patrick, who was about 10, picked up the dog and carried him for a few hundred yards, where I think both dog and boy realized that, in this case, Patrick’s reach exceeded his grasp.  A few years later though, on a long-distance hike in Idaho, Patrick showed similar compassion and great maturity when he dropped his pack and came back from the top of a hill he had climbed, to take the pack of an older hiker (not me) who was having some trouble with the ascent.  

My only regret is that my other sons and daughter have obligations and won’t be joining us on this trek as they often did when they were younger.  In truth, I think my daughter shares my wife’s view of long-distance hiking, and I recall a few occasions where either an older brother or I were required to carry her for some distance.   I’m not sure she’s ever completely forgiven me for a short hike into Lost Lake that turned into a long hike out when I missed the spur road where I’d parked the car.  I still need to remind the participants that I was the one who found the car and that they all lived to complain about my navigating.

I think the cares of the City will diminish over the next few days as I confront the grim reality of being an aging hiker.  I may have to remind myself as I stagger along that part of the price of enjoying beautiful country and creating great memories is some short-term pain and suffering.

Civic Engagement

This year, the City will conduct more than 275 public meetings covering a wide range of issues affecting the community.  I didn’t actually count all the meetings, so the number is likely to be somewhat higher.  Total attendance at these meetings will exceed several thousand, although many of the people who show up are likely to attend more than one meeting.  I don’t believe we have ever tried to calculate the amount we invest in holding these gatherings.

In addition to our regular meetings, we also hold a variety of special meetings, such as those held in neighborhoods to explain new development proposals.  City officials and employees also give presentations to civic clubs as well as talks in schools and other venues.  These more formal presentations do not include the thousands of meetings with citizens or others who do business with the City on a daily basis.

When I began my career in local government, most citizens would have had difficulty finding information about the City without coming to or calling City Hall.  Today, the City’s website provides tens of thousands of pages of information about finances, programs, codes, services, or anything related to city business.  The City’s libraries provide access to computers in addition to a wide variety of printed information about the City.

Technology has also given rise to a variety of ways to challenge whatever the City is doing or saying.  Letters to newspaper editors used to be the primary way for citizens to express displeasure at City Hall, but now blogs and social media provide a quick way for people to express their thoughts and feelings about the City.  Albany has a unique tradition for a city of more than 50,000 people that allows citizens to speak at council meetings with no stated time limit.  Council meetings can be viewed live on-line or on television, and recorded versions are available on the City’s website.

We also use better tools to communicate policy information to the public than when I started my career.  The City’s Strategic Plan lays out goals and objectives along with performance measurement information in about 25 pages, while the annual budget document presents comprehensive financial information in something more than 400 pages.  Recognizing that most people don’t want to take the time to look at all the details, much of the information is included in an executive summary.

The City could certainly do more to convey information and engage with citizens, but greater effort comes at greater cost.  We are fortunate to enjoy the nearly free services of our volunteer board members and almost free City Council, many of whom spend countless hours talking with people throughout the community about their concerns.  Involving city employees, enhancing technology, printing more copies, or advertising in traditional media costs money that can be used to deliver services.

Albany has a strong record of civic engagement that, in addition to traditional meetings, involves community gatherings like River Rhythms, Mondays @ Monteith, and the ATI Northwest Art & Air Festival.  I plan to engage a few of my grandchildren at Timber-Linn Memorial Park this weekend and hope others will be similarly inclined.

What Happened to the Pepsi Money?

Spring of 2010 sometimes seems like a lifetime ago instead of a little more than three years past.  Many new residents who have moved to Albany during that period and many more long-term residents probably don’t know that the City of Albany received a check that year for $18.5 million from SVC Manufacturing, a division of the folks who bring us Pepsi, to settle a contract that obligated the company to build a new plant in Albany.  The City also received a commitment for an additional $5 million when SVC sells the property they purchased for the plant, plus an agreement to remove the land from tax-deferred status which results in increased tax payments to Linn County of more than $200,000 annually.  This additional revenue is distributed to all the taxing jurisdictions (city, county, LBCC, schools, etc.) where the property is located.

The settlement money was and is different from most money the City receives because there are very few conditions on how it can be used.  Albany’s City Council has the authority to allocate the money for any public purpose as long as it is done in accordance with state budget laws.  The Council made a decision shortly after receiving the settlement that it would not be used for operating purposes but would be reserved for capital or one-time expenses.  Among the highest priorities was to put settlement money back into the utility funds that covered the cost of bringing infrastructure to the SVC site.  The cost of putting in water and sewer lines was $1.16 million, and that amount was returned to the capital fund for the utilities.  An additional $1 million was allocated to the City’s liability reserve fund to help cover the costs of reaching the settlement agreement.  This money has not been spent but is reserved for future use.

Saving money also seemed like a good use of settlement proceeds, and the City Council directed staff to look at the savings that would result from paying off outstanding debt obligations.  The City was able to net savings of about $1 million by paying off a bond early with the use of $790,000 in settlement money.  Councilors also recognized that utility rates can be a heavy burden for residents and chose to use $840,000 to offset a proposed sewer rate increase.

Cities often use Local Improvement Districts (LIDs) to help finance the cost of new infrastructure for projects like the improvement of Oak Street or Timber Ridge Street.  Settlement money was loaned to these projects in the amount of $4,629,782.  Most of this money will be recovered as assessments are repaid or, in the case of the Timber Ridge improvements, property is sold.

Perhaps the most controversial use of the money from SVC was a Council decision to purchase land near East Thornton Lake for use as a natural area.  The $1 million allocation leveraged an additional $700,000 from state and private sources and settled a dispute over use of the land that might otherwise still be in litigation.  The City has spent about $215,000 on small businesses assistance, facilities studies, and other small economic or community development projects in Albany.  The most recent expenditure of settlement money was authorization of a $174,000 loan to purchase software that will allow for electronic submission of development plans.

The current available balance that is designated for new facilities and economic development is more than $8.5 million, with an additional amount of nearly $5 million to be repaid from LIDs and other loans.

Albany now has close to 51,000 residents, and there are probably close to that many opinions about how the City should spend money to serve or improve the community.  Most of the SVC settlement money has been invested in improvements that will serve Albany residents for a lifetime and beyond.  New businesses, new streets, and new parkland are all part of what makes a community livable and prosperous.  Additionally, the majority of the settlement proceeds remain to help reduce the cost of needed facilities and promote economic development.