“People Like You”

I made a decision in 2003 to volunteer for an assignment in Kerbala, Iraq, that I knew would involve some danger and an extended separation from my family.  My wife and I discussed the decision at length before agreeing that it seemed like the right thing to do.  Recognizing the potential threats, I contacted my insurance company to see about increasing my life insurance coverage.

My insurance company only serves people with military connections, so I assumed they would have no problem with requests like mine from people deploying to war zones.  My assumption was wrong.  The very nice person on the phone told me that no company would provide individual coverage at a rate I could afford.  She stopped just short of laughing at me, although I detected some amusement in her response.

Fortunately, I returned from Iraq in good health and with some smug satisfaction that my insurance company received no additional premium revenue from me.  I think I prefer that satisfaction to the kind that would have involved a large payout from the company.  Nonetheless, I decided that my coverage was still inadequate; and now that I was safely home in La Grande, Oregon, I could easily increase it.  I was wrong again.  The equally nice person on the phone responded to my inquiry by saying something like, “You just returned from Iraq, didn’t you?”  The miracle of computers apparently allows companies to keep track of previous requests even when they turn you down.  I replied that I had returned from Iraq and that I was again living in the incredibly safe community of La Grande.  The company representative informed me that my current residence no longer mattered because I was now a high-risk individual.  I argued that I spent the first 50 years of my life staying out of war zones and had no intention of straying into one again.  I was politely told, “People like you always go again.”

It turns out my insurance company knew more about me than I did.  I really had no intention of traveling to exotic or dangerous places, but I kept getting calls to do short-term work in parts of the world that some people consider unsafe.  Most of the assignments in places like Croatia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Indonesia turned out to be very safe, although I had some uncomfortable moments in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.  I was recently asked to do some work in Jordan, and I’m confident it will involve less risk than driving my car to the airport.

I have learned more than I can describe from the opportunities I’ve been given to work in the developing world, and I guess limitations on my life insurance is a price worth paying.  I think my wife agrees.  She is planning to go with me to Amman so that we can both fulfill a long held wish to see Petra.  People like me may lack the judgment necessary to secure good life insurance, but at least we have the chance to visit some interesting countries and perhaps make a small contribution to making them better places to live.

Celebrating Investment

I attended a conference of city and county managers last week where I suggested that some people in our communities are willing to donate significant amounts of money to city projects if we take the time to ask.  One of my colleagues dismissed the idea and argued that we shouldn’t be letting wealthy people dictate what the city does.  My colleague’s concern has not been a problem in the places I’ve lived; and in La Grande and Albany, we have new libraries that might not have been possible without significant private donations.

While attending the conference, I read an editorial in the Democrat-Herald opining that the City might have regrets about receiving a very large amount of money that allowed a major corporation to terminate its contract with the city.  I can’t speak for the Council or others who work here, but I think that idea is as much of a problem as rejecting money from donors who want to do something positive for their community.  In both cases, these resources have been used to make a variety of important improvements while saving the taxpayers significant amounts of money.  There will always be disagreement about the best use of resources, but to suggest that we should decline money because it might generate controversy is to suggest that we never do anything.

I have heard similar arguments in the past that the City should not accept grants because they are a waste of taxpayer money.  I have not always agreed with the goals and objectives of various grant programs; however, I know of a large number of community improvements that would never have been possible without grants from other levels of government or foundations.  Oregon has been a donor state throughout my lifetime, in that we pay more as taxpayers than we receive back in federal benefits.  Rejecting grants out of what I see as a misguided principle would only add to that long-standing disparity.

Anytime the city charges fees, imposes taxes, or incurs debt, someone generally disagrees with the Council’s decision.  Making difficult choices, living with the consequences, and accepting criticism is an inevitable part of serving on a city council.  I believe it would be a great disservice to local citizens for a council to reject resources that can be used to provide services, build needed facilities, and lower the tax burden on individuals and businesses.

Early in my career as a city manager, I formed the opinion that an important part of my job was to help attract investment to the community I served.  As I’ve written before, investment takes many forms, including donations, grants, and private capital.  We do not all have extra money to invest, but most of us have time and talents that can serve our town.  Whatever form the investment takes, I believe it’s something we should celebrate and honor.