Little Fish in a Big Pond

Several events occurred this week that reminded me how big our world is and how small we can seem in relation to the other seven billion-plus humans who live on the planet. The first event was a regional middle school wrestling tournament in Woodburn; the second was Career Day talks at West Albany High School; and the third was an invitation to do some work in Cambodia in 2018.

My grandson Roland had a tremendous wrestling season this year, going undefeated in more than 20 matches leading up to the regional championship. He pinned all but one of his opponents and looked like he had a good shot at competing at the state tournament this weekend. Fate intervened when he injured his neck in practice the day before the regional meet and had to decide whether to compete at all. He chose to wrestle and did very well, but the injury coupled with the higher level of competition kept him from his goal of reaching the state tourney. Roland handled his disappointment well and has moved on to his next goal to finish the year with A’s in all of his classes. Roland’s wrestling experience illustrated the point that even those who excel at something will, sooner or later, encounter someone who is likely to be even better. Our inability to be the best is more a matter of numbers than it is lack of desire or effort and should never discourage us from doing our best.

Mayor Konopa and I were invited to speak at West Albany High School’s Career Day this week, as we have done for a number of years at South Albany. Our experience has been much the same at both schools. The students were generally attentive, asked good questions, and were at least as respectful as I remember being as a high school student 45 years ago. I think all adults should be required to spend some time in our schools to get a more balanced view of what actually happens there. There are no doubt problems in our schools, but the overwhelming majority of students are getting a decent education and the opportunity to become lifelong learners. As with so many things, our attention is drawn to negatives like school violence or the failings of a few teachers, rather than to the daily accomplishments of schools and students.

I am sorry to say that when I hear the word “Cambodia” the first thing that comes to mind is the genocide that occurred there in the 1970s. Nearly all the members of the regime that created that horror are gone now, and the country is becoming a more prosperous and stable place; but much remains to be done. We have hosted two visitors from Cambodia through the State Department’s Southeast Asian Fellowship program, and they are both great young men. A failed genocidal state is on the path toward a much better future.

The connection that links a wrestling tournament, a high school career day, and Cambodia is the affirmation that we, as individuals, live in a big, diverse world that is often confusing and hard to understand. We should never lose sight, however, of our ability to overcome our disappointments, see past the negative, and find the opportunities to do our bit to make things better.

The Case for a Biennial Budget

Yesterday, Holly, who works in the City Manager’s Office, put pressure on me by complimenting my recent columns. She thought that maybe my writing or thinking is getting better as I get closer to retirement. My response is to write a really boring essay on budgeting just to let people know that I haven’t forgotten how to be a bureaucrat.

We are currently in the process of reviewing departmental budgets in preparation for annual Budget Committee meetings coming up in late April and early May. As many of you know, we spend a great deal of time estimating upcoming needs, completing appropriate forms, and explaining requests at all levels of the organization. The process usually starts in October or November with a review of the Strategic Plan and ends in June when the budget is adopted by the City Council. I strongly believe in the need for transparent and effective budgeting, but I also believe there is a better way to do it.

Albany should consider moving to a biennial budget process. Biennial is an ambiguous word; so to make it clear, I mean we should only go through the budgeting process once every two years. Oregon law allows local governments to follow the State’s example in doing a biennial budget, and a number of jurisdictions do so. Benton County has been on a biennial budget for a number of years, apparently without any noticeable negative effects. I know of several cities that also budget every two years.

The primary benefit of the biennial process is the savings throughout the organization of only having to spend half as much time on a very labor-intensive exercise. Most revenues and expenditures do not vary widely from year to year, and making changes to either an annual or biennial budget is not particularly difficult or time-consuming. City councils have great authority to respond to changing circumstances when needed, so a biennial budget allows for significant savings with very little risk.

I believe all the benefits of an annual budget can be found in a biennial process. The exercise begins with an estimate of revenues that are seldom volatile. Even in the worst days of the Great Recession, we knew roughly what the effects would be and how they would affect us at least two years in advance. My budget message from 2007 specifically noted a likely decrease in revenue in the future and called for an increase in reserves to help cope with the change. Biennial budgets do not change accounting procedures, and we would still be required to conduct an annual audit.

A couple of years ago, a former City Councilor suggested that the greatest gift I could leave the City would be an improvement to the budget process. He wasn’t referring to a biennial budget, but that’s my opinion of a very valuable change I could help make before I go. I will present the concept to the Budget Committee and Council again this year and advocate for the change beginning with next year’s budget.