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The Amazing Internet

I received a news release this morning from our Parks & Recreation Department advertising a Baby Signs program at the Oregon Language Center February 23.  I noticed that the program cost $55, but I had no idea what Baby Signs meant or why someone would be willing to pay $55 to find out about it.  My first instinct was to contact Debbi in P&R and ask about the program.  Instead, I googled Baby Signs and instantly found a complete explanation.  My purpose here is not to write about Baby Signs; so I would encourage anyone who is curious to do what I did.


The Internet is a truly amazing tool.  If you had told people ten years ago to google themselves, you could probably expect to be involved in a fight.  Now, almost everyone understands the term; and most people have even done it.  So much information is so accessible that the Internet has become a large part of most people’s daily lives.  We use it at work, at home, and around the world.  When I was working in Iraq a few years ago, I was able to chat with my wife online almost every day through a satellite connection.  We made appointments to get online in the morning or evening and then “chatted” for a half hour or so through our keyboards.  I observed, only partly in jest, that we had more direct communication when I was in Iraq then we did when we were both in La Grande.


Perhaps only an old person can marvel at what the Internet can do.  Younger people have grown up with it and probably find it no more amazing than my generation found television.  Regardless of how amazed you may be by it, no one can deny the power of the Internet and its influence on society.  As with any power, it can be exercised for good or ill.


The good is obvious.  I am able to maintain contact with a much wider network of friends, relatives, and acquaintances than I could have even imagined twenty years ago.  Many research projects take a fraction of the time they consumed in the past, and much of the information is more current and accurate.  E-mail allows me to communicate more efficiently with other busy people.  I have complained in previous editions of this blog that the size of our organization makes it difficult for me to know everybody who works for the City.  The complaint is valid, but any City employee who chooses to read the blog probably knows more about me than most of the 30 or so people I worked with in Oakridge for seven years ever did.  The list of all the benefits of the Internet would be long and tedious.


Good, in my experience, is almost always accompanied by bad.  Just as the Internet can be a tremendous time-saver, it can also be an incredible time sink.  People can spend hours in front of the screen doing nothing productive without even realizing they’re wasting time.  There is some irony that while we spend time posting Facebook messages our family members are in another room sending messages to someone else.  Internet gambling is apparently wildly popular, and I think everyone is aware of the plague of pornography.  A friend from my past lost his state job when it was discovered that he was running his home business through his work Internet connection.


Our policy is that, with approval from our supervisor, we can use our work computers for incidental personal business, just as we can occasionally use a work phone for local communications.  The danger is that incidental use can quickly expand beyond acceptable limits.  It should go without saying that work computers are to be used almost exclusively for City business, but we have had occasional instances where the policy has been abused.  Essentially everything that is done on a City computer is a public record that can be viewed by anyone who requests it.  The test I try to use for my use of this incredible tool is to ask myself how I would feel if what I was doing appeared on the front page of the local paper.  I don’t recall doing anything that would embarrass me so far, and I hope to maintain that standard in the future.

Animals Here and There

Animals have, if you’ll pardon the expression, dogged me throughout my career.  I have written in the past about rats fighting their way through the sewers and into people’s toilets, only to become the responsibility of the city manager.  I have been called on a number of occasions to deal with deer, both dead and alive. 


The most tragic event was the murder of a good-sized buck in La Grande by a citizen armed with an air rifle.  I wasn’t present when one of our officers responded to a call about angry neighbors confronting a horrified resident who had just killed a deer that had been grazing in his garden.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife had loaned the aggrieved gardener an air rifle and told him to shoot the deer in the butt if the animal continued to trespass.   Unfortunately for the deer, the resident was not a great shot; and he hit the poor animal in the eye.  The wounded deer had just enough strength to run out of the garden and into the street before dying.  Our police officer was eventually forced to protect the truly repentant killer from the wrath of his neighbors.


Deer are notorious garden grazers, and one day I received an angry call from a lady threatening to sue the city if we didn’t do something to stop a persistent animal from ruining her vegetables.  I explained that deer are wards of the state and that city people are not allowed to harm them.  I suggested she call the Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for assistance.  A few hours later an ODFW employee called to tell me that he had responded to the complaint by going to the residence.  He was forced to leave in a hurry after the complainant became angry with him for “hurting the deer.”


Wild animal problems are relatively simple in comparison to the problems we have with each other’s pets.  Gardeners seem to be particularly testy about animals, and none more so than the brown-thumbed citizen who has just uncovered a cat dropping with his or her bare hand.  These incidents inevitably lead to a call to the city manager and a demand for cat regulation.  They also make a compelling case for the use of gloves when gardening.


I think dogs, however, are the champion complaint generators of the animal kingdom.  Everyone knows dogs bark, poop, bite, fight, and consort in overly familiar ways with other dogs.  These activities, while possibly endearing to the dog’s owners, are usually received with less enthusiasm by neighbors.  Dog confrontations have been known to lead to violence between neighbors, retaliatory vandalism, and the occasional lawsuit.

All of this leads the City of Albany to the uncomfortable question of how many dogs should be permitted in each household.  Albany’s two-dog limit, enacted more than 25 years ago, is now under fire.  The newspaper editor believes there should be no limit, arguing that the City should issue citations based on proscribed actions rather than simple numbers.  This argument makes good sense in theory, and some communities have adopted this approach.  The attraction of a limit is that it is much easier to prove someone has violated it than it is to prove dog misbehavior.  As someone who has listened to more than 20 years of dog disputes, I know that people seldom agree on what constitutes canine mischief.  These disagreements must then be resolved in municipal court at the cost of considerable time, money, and neighborhood harmony.


I do not have an opinion about what the right number of dogs should be for Albany.  A quick survey of colleagues around the state seems to show that most cities allow more than two, but less than five.  Bend has no limit and claims to have the highest per capita dog population in the state.  The Council will be wrestling with the issue at their next meeting, and I encourage all interested parties to share their opinion.  Dog regulations should be based on community values and attitudes.  There is a funny side (in my opinion) to many animal issues, but I fully understand that regulating pets is serious business.

Riding Financial Tides

City managers generally hate to admit that they don’t know everything there is to know about city finances.  I am guilty of this hubris and will proudly tell you that during my career the cities I have worked for have enjoyed good financial health during my tenure as city manager.  Life has a way of getting even, however, when pride overshadows humility.


Current international economic trends are catching up with the City of Albany, and we are starting to see declining revenue in a number of places.  Our Building Division is no longer receiving sufficient money from permits to support current operating levels.  The Community Development Department is developing a plan to sustain the division through fiscal years 2009 and 2010; but if there is no increase in building activity in the next year, greater cuts in expenses will be required.


I have told the City Council that our Building Division may be the canary in the coal mine for the City as a whole.  Earlier this week, the Governor announced that one approach to reducing the state’s budget shortfall may be to suspend payments to local government.  Like nearly every city in the state, Albany depends on its share of state liquor and cigarette taxes to help support essential services.  The second largest single revenue source for our transit service, for example, is state-shared money.


Previous years’ trends may no longer be a reliable guide to the future.  Property tax collections, our largest single revenue source in the General Fund, have steadily increased in recent years; and collections this year are slightly ahead of last year’s pace.  I do not expect this trend to continue next year and have asked directors to build their budgets accordingly. 


We are about to enter our annual budget process, and the preliminary message I will be giving to our Budget Committee on Monday is that while there is great uncertainty about how much money the City will receive next year, we can be very certain that our rate of growth will be lower.  We also know that the cost of providing existing services will be higher.  Obviously, this is not a sustainable trend.


As with all of life, there are many things that can happen to us that we can’t control.  We can, however, control how we respond to these events.  Albany is in a reasonably good financial position as we approach the year ahead.  We have a Strategic Plan that will help guide decisions and fulfill the obligation of our mission statement to provide the best possible service to our citizens.  I think the greatest danger of uncertainty and concern about potential challenges is a tendency to try to avoid them.  Our response should be, and I believe will be, to recognize our financial threats and address them in our budget process.  I am confident we can build a budget that will sustain services through the coming fiscal year and provide a foundation for continued financial health.