Monday, September 1, 2008

Off and Running...

Back to campaigning again, this time for mayor of Hood River. Follow the fun in my new blog.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Listen To Me!

I used to enjoy browsing though online discussion groups, but now I find it just makes my blood pressure rise. It's not because I disagree with what people are saying, but because they have chosen the most inefficient way to get their message across. Local politics works much more directly. I'm baffled as to why someone would offer an opinion or lodge a complaint about city operations on a nationwide discussion group when the City Manager and all City Council members have listed phone numbers and email addresses. You'd probably be surprised how little unsolicited input we get. I see about one email from a resident per month, and at least half the City Council meetings have no one offering public testimony. Most of us actively solicit public input on upcoming issues. I'll frequently ask people I meet at a barbeque what they think about x, y or z, but that doesn't mean I get your take on the issue.

Local government sure isn't about power or money-- we don't have either. So we listen pretty hard to all the direct input we get. If you're looking to do more than just vent, skip the online groups and go directly to the people who are making the decisions. You may actually get what you want.

Some brief notes on speaking at a public meeting: Every public official knows how hard it is to stand up and make a public address, so you'll get points just for having the courage to stand up. I'm uniformly impressed at how articulate and expressive people are when they rise to speak at our meetings, so I'm not sure I need to offer much advice. I'll just offer a generic suggestion about giving testimony: consider your comments from the point of view of the public official. We need to understand what you are saying, why it is important, and what we can do about it. It's easy to wander when you're passionate about something, but if you stray off point we will probably follow you, and while we may have an interesting discussion we'll probably never find our way back.

Which brings me back to my point: If you want to influence your local government get off the soap box and contact decision makers directly. It works.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Making Sausage

A recent Hood River News article may have created the impression we already have a budget for 2007-2008, but that's not quite right. I'll describe the steps we use to produce a budget. They are mandated pretty explicitly by state law. All these steps are public, so you're welcome to watch us at work-- if my sausage metaphor hasn't scared you off.

Budget season starts in January, when the city council meets with the city staff to discuss the priorities for the year. Staff translates this into concrete plans. Our city manager then prepares a budget document, which includes not only the budget but a letter describing it. This document is presented to the budget committee (the 7 members of the city council plus seven other citizens appointed by the council).

That presentation kicks of the more formal part of the budget process. The budget committee meets to discuss and modify the budget. Our budget committee has met three times so far, and will meet weekly until it has a budget which gets at least 8 votes.

The budget committee sends its budget to the city council for approval. The city council can make changes-- within limits. Generally they cannot increase expenditures by more than 10% in any category, though they can cut. They must complete the process before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

When the city council approves the budget there are a few final steps, such as notifying the county about our property tax levy and sending copies to the state for their records.

Our budget committee will meet periodically after the budget is adopted to review progress. One of our budget committee members prepares a great monthly report so we can track income and expenditures all year long-- until the cycle starts again for the next fiscal year.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Budgeting 201, Part 1

One of the most important things the City Council does is oversee the collection and spending of our money. I'll discuss details in later posts, but first let's talk philosophy. In my book there are three fundamental principles: balance, transparency, and sustainability.

Balance: State law requires the city to have a balanced budget. Revenues (taxes, fees, etc.) must equal expenses (payroll, materials, etc.). Since the city is in deficit in three of its funds (a very bad thing) it is operating under a deficit reduction plan. Instead of just balancing our budget, we need to spend $250,000 less than we take in.

Transparency: The budget describes how the city plans to raise money and how it plans to spend it. It is easy for a 50+ page spreadsheet to obscure the path the dollars take between collection and expense. I'm not talking about fraud, but the fog of accounting. The City Council or any citizen need to be able to see that funds are being allocated as directed, and then spent as allocated. Do building permits cover the cost of inspections? What will happen if we don't get the expected federal timber money? Does the new storm water fee really go toward storm water treatment? Policy decisions, oversight and accountability all require that the city's accounts be set up so we can follow the money.

Sustainability: Ongoing city expenses, such as payroll, need to be met by ongoing revenues, such as taxes. This is a hard one, especially since we see our federal and state government set a bad example. Any budget will have some reserves-- cash squirreled away for emergencies or to pay for future big ticket items-- but if you start using that cash to meet payroll you can quickly get in trouble. When those reserves are sucked dry you will no longer have cash left for emergencies or big ticket items, but you will still have a payroll to meet. That's when you have to take more drastic actions, such as abruptly cutting services to reduce payroll.

I plan to carefully review our city budget for all three of these principles. We must stick to our deficit reduction plan because it will only be harder to reduce the deficit next year. We must make sure "the money trail" is easy to follow. We must structure our city government to operate sustainably, or every year we will be battling over which services we can afford that year.

In "Part 2" (or maybe "Part 3"?) I'll review how our budget is doing with respect to balance, transparency, and sustainability. Discussing lofty principles is all well and good, but we will have to plow through a pile of numbers to see how the words match the deeds.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


What better way to populate my blog than to rerun articles from my old blog? I'll just include a few that I think are still relevant. You can follow this link to the old site if you really want to explore.

I'm Back!

After a brief hiatus, my campaign blog has been reborn as "HoodRiverUnofficial." Since I actually won my campaign, my online life is a bit more complicated. Many of my communications are covered by Oregon's Public Records law (ORS192) which I wrote about here. I also need to make a few things clear:
  1. I am not authorized to speak for the City of Hood River so my opinions are strictly my own (yeah!)
  2. I have agreed to support the decisions of the Hood River City Council, so don't expect me to do a lot of venting about losing a vote.
  3. I need to avoid engaging in discussions on a limited set of topics which might be the subject of a quasi-judicial hearing. This includes things like specific land use decisions, since they may be appealed to the City Council. I need to hear the same evidence as all other members, and any statements I make would be clear demonstration of bias.
  4. I will not comment on anything which happens in "Executive Session." These (rare) non-public meetings may deal with things such as lawsuits or personnel issues.
Other than these limitations, I'm a US citizen with free speech protections under the Oregon State Constitution and the US Constitution. I look forward to a candid discussion of local issues.