Business and Government

Recently, an Albany Democrat-Herald guest columnist objected to the Albany City Council’s decision to assist a local business by providing a $50,000 forgivable loan that will allow the new owner to expand and add new employees. In return, the business is contractually obligated to stay in its Albany location for the next ten years.

The columnist accused the Council of “playing favorites” by awarding money to one business when all businesses would probably like similar assistance. Government at all levels has routinely provided assistance to businesses since the beginning of the American Republic, just as business has been and is a critical part of the foundation of government in our country. Our national rail network, for example, was constructed largely by private industry in exchange for huge land grants by the federal government. Businesses large and small routinely take advantage of tax abatements, low-interest loans, and other forms of subsidy provided by federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Most of Albany’s biggest employers have received some form of assistance from government during their time in the city. The local business that recently contracted with the City of Albany was offered larger subsidies to move to another location, not unlike the grants used by the State of Indiana in November 2016 to keep Carrier Corporation jobs from moving to Mexico.

Albany’s economy has been steadily improving over the past few years as new employers have moved to town and existing industries have expanded. Several high-tech companies have recently purchased buildings and are now employing people in good paying jobs. It’s ironic that as the guest column painted a grim picture of Albany’s economy, the same issue of the newspaper reported that Linn County’s jobless rate is at the lowest level ever recorded. I pass industrial facilities in Albany every day on my short drive to work that are advertising for new employees, and the number one complaint I hear from businesses around town is the lack of workers to fill jobs. The need has become so acute that the Council agreed to provide assistance to Linn-Benton Community College to provide up to $2.9 million for equipment to train people to fill vacancies in Albany industries. There shouldn’t be any need to point out the new retail and commercial businesses either constructing new buildings or filling vacant ones all over town.

Apparently, I live in a different city than the one described by the guest columnist. The Albany I know is growing, both in population and in prosperity. This is not opinion or an alternative fact but is something that we can and do measure. Most businesses in town are taking advantage of that shared opportunity rather than complaining about imaginary problems in the newspaper.

Getting There

Today’s presidential inauguration is a reminder to me that most of us want the same things for our country. Prosperity, peace, opportunity, individual freedom, education, safety, rewarding work, good health, and a clean environment are just a few of the general goals I think all of us support. I believe, however, that we spend too little time considering the goals that unite us and too much time bickering over how to achieve them.

When my wife and I got married, we had long discussions about what we wanted to happen in our married life. We both wanted children, to finish our education, to have a decent home, to live in Oregon, and to be close to our extended family. The decisions we made focused on what we wanted to achieve, rather than on things where we had less agreement. I joined the Navy shortly after our marriage as a means to our agreed-upon ends and because I had a lifelong attachment to that branch of the service. My wife wasn’t as sure about the military option, but she saw the wisdom of accepting the risk of some protracted separations to accomplish our larger goals. I’m probably giving myself too much credit, but our choice to agree on certain goals and focus on accomplishing them helped us avoid a lot of arguments and achieve what was most important to us. I would add that we should never discount the importance of dumb luck and a convenient memory.

Those of us living in the U.S. today are looking at circumstances not all that different than what my wife and I faced 45 years ago. We have a strong base that includes general prosperity, educational opportunity, a relatively secure country, and a variety of paths to a successful future. There are at least as many problems and ways to fail as there are strengths; but we are, by most measures, if not the strongest, at least among the strongest countries in the world. Unlike many of the places I’ve visited over the past two decades, our starting point is not bad.

You would think that if we have a fairly strong consensus about where we want to go (paragraph 1) and where we are now (paragraph 3), figuring out how to get there wouldn’t be all that difficult. My hope for our community and our country is that while we vigorously debate the means to our many agreed-upon ends, we will not lose sight of what’s most important. We can choose to focus on all that divides us or we can agree to disagree on many of the “hows” and remember the primacy of the “whats.”

Peaceful Transfer of Power

Earlier this week, the Albany City Council met for the first time this year and a new councilor was sworn in along with two incumbents who had been reelected. I have been a part of many of these ceremonies over the years, and I’ve come to appreciate the good fortune we enjoy when citizens step forward to serve their communities.

I have worked for nine mayors and I can’t remember how many different councilors during my city government career. I think the majority of these folks have been fairly conservative with a few gravitating toward one extreme end or the other of the political spectrum. Nearly all have been genuinely nice people wanting to do the right thing for their communities. The only exceptions were a couple who seemed more interested in their selfish concerns than in the welfare of the town.

As I near retirement, I sometimes worry about the rough consensus that has existed in our community and in places across the country that has created conditions leading to prosperity and livability. People have always had strong political opinions, but nearly all the people I’ve worked for have observed basic courtesies and refrained from vicious personal attacks. The advent of social media where people can post or twitter really nasty stuff may be changing the civic environment. National leaders are not helping the situation, and it may be that younger people just assume that nastiness is a necessary part of the democratic process. I hope not.

Humiliation and degradation rarely, if ever, enable collaborative efforts. Governing at all levels is an exercise in getting people to agree enough to do things that need to get done. Respect and consideration are important values for people interested in achieving collective goals. I routinely see this behavior at our city council meetings and only rarely see personal animosity. We have strong personalities on the Council with very different views of the world, yet they frequently show concern and consideration for one another.

As mayors and councilors have changed over time, there has been an ongoing commitment to trying to improve Albany. New infrastructure projects like the water and wastewater treatment plants, new facilities like the library and police and fire stations, downtown renovation, economic development projects, and social service initiatives have succeeded with support from councilors, regardless of their political affiliation.

I think the new Council will retain many of the same values we’ve seen during my tenure as City Manager, and I think that’s a good thing. The differences are likely to be positive as well. We don’t do much to celebrate the peaceful transition of power at the local level, perhaps because we have become too cynical about politics at all levels. We may want to turn our attention away for a moment from a gaudy presidential inauguration and give quiet thanks for the countless people who volunteer to oversee many of the critical services that most affect our lives.