Monday, September 01, 2008

Off and Running...

I'm off and running again, this time for mayor. Follow the fun in my new blog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I'm Back!

After a few very busy months learning how to be a City Councilor, I'm ready to restart my blog. Since I am no longer a candidate, I've renamed my blog "HoodRiverUnofficial." So click on through, and enjoy my new and improved musings.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blog On Ice

My blog is on hiatus as I retool. Now that I am actually in office, there are a few legal issues I need to sort through. Public officials still have free speech protections, but there are a few twists I need to understand. I'll fill you in when I get back on line in late January.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ORS 192

Our government is supposed to be responsive to the people, and that responsiveness is protected by two principles:
  • The workings of government should be visible to the public.
  • If the public doesn't like what it sees, it can replace the government.
Oregon has a law called ORS 192 which guarantees public visibility into the workings of government by making most government proceedings and documents public. (If you don't like what you see, you should check out the processes for election and recall of elected officials in ORS 249.)

I've been studying ORS 192 since many parts of it apply to me when I take office. For example, all my email related to my work on City Council will be public record, and can be requested if you are really bored some day. Remember, that rule also applies to email you send to me about city business, so be civil! You also have the right to watch us work at any of our meetings (with very few exceptions). I highly recommend you do it at least once-- we meet every other Monday at 6PM. You can check the agenda online to pick a meeting which includes something you care about.

Here are some interesting facts about the meeting laws:
  • City Councilors need to avoid getting together in groups of 4 or more except during scheduled meetings. A group of 4 council members could make decisions which would be illegal if they haven't provided for the public to view the deliberations.
  • Conference calls are public meetings. The public has a right to listen in.
  • Email is a gray area. Council member have to be careful when they send email to 3 or more other councilors, since the "back and forth" could become the electronic equivalent of a meeting, which needs to be public.
While I'm at it, here's a nice tidbit I found in the ethics rules. Oregon does not have a dollar limit on the amount of food or drink an elected official can accept-- but the official is required to consume the food and drink in the presence of the purchaser. No takeout or doggie bags.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Information Revolution

It's said we are in the middle of a revolution in information technology which is no less significant than the Industrial Revolution. Case and point: I have been trying to learn about housing affordability metrics to follow up on a previous article. One call to a friend who works for the state, and I have the email address of the state's "Housing Analyst." A few hours later an expert economist has answered my basic questions, sent me a boatload of relevant data, and showed me where to find his research and analysis. Any of you remember when research started with a trip to the card catalog at the library?

Of course it will be months before I wade through all the information I have. But I'll share some of the basics. The state measures housing affordability by looking at the percentage of household income which you need to spend on housing. They add up rent or mortgage payments, related taxes, insurance, and utilities. If you are spending 30% or more of your income on these housing costs you are "housing cost burdened." If you are spending 50% or more you are "severely cost burdened."

In the past few months I've seen enough different claims about the median home price to know this isn't an easy number to capture. But even if you do a really good job measuring median home sales price over some period of time, you don't get the whole picture:
  • It ignores mortgage interest rates. At a lower interest rate you can afford a larger mortgage.
  • It ignores the rental market. 52% of housing units in Hood River are renter occupied. Despite the dream of home ownership, most of us live in rentals at some point in our lives.
  • It assumes the sales over the period are representative of the current housing stock. In fact as we go through real estate cycles different sectors of the market are active each month.
I'll repeat the disclaimer I displayed earlier: I am not suggesting we don't have a problem. We all know that homes prices have shot up much faster than income. But to make good public policy we need a much richer understanding of the problem. Fortunately the information revolution has provided us with plenty of sources to mine for that better understanding.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Council Summary: 11/13/06, with dirty pictures

These aren't official minutes, but here are my highlights of this evening's City Council meeting:

Height Reduction:

Council completed deliberations on new building height restrictions. They like the proposal to reduce building height from 35' to 28' in R1, R2, and R3, except to allow 35' for multifamily (>3 units) in R3. Remodels, additions, etc. will need to be within the 28' even if your house is >28'.

They want to allow a "conditional use" up to 35' in R3 for single family or duplex/ triplex, but that involves a hearing at which you will need to prove compatibility. As it was explained to me, you can only use "conforming uses" surrounding you-- ie., multifamily structures. Existing single family or duplex/ triplex structures >28' will be considered "legal non-conforming uses." They cannot be used to prove your 35' addition will be compatible with the neighborhood.

City Council asked Planning staff to prepare an ordinance stating all of this, so they can vote on it at the next meeting. After they pass an ordinance, it becomes law in 30 days.


Yes, it smelled even worse than it looks. Sewers have been a real problem lately, with some very dramatic system failures. There was a "special meeting" of City Council a few weeks ago to enact a new ordinance requiring residents to install backwater preventers in certain circumstances. This ordinance apparently helps shield the city from some liability in these failures. I thought these devices would not be necessary if the city replaced old pipes and cleaned them regularly. Wrong! One of the recent failures occured on newer sewer lines when a stick and a pipe piece jammed in a manhole. This could have happened the day after a cleaning. The problem is that it isn't completely clear who needs backwater preventers and who doesn't. If you can't figure it out from the diagram in the Hood River News, you should call Public Works at 386-2383. They'll take your name and get back to you with a definitive answer.

To deal with the broader issue of decaying sewer pipes and an aging system the council approved an ordinance to raise the residential sewer rate for most people from $36 to $40. There was a corresponding increase in rates for commercial and industrial users. This will fund projects which were identified in 2001 as critical to the continued operation of the system. For example, the clay sewer mains on Columbia Street will be replaced. This rate increase comes on top of the stormwater fee earlier this year, and the water rate increases last year-- it's been a very tough year.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Back To Work

Now that the election is over I'd like to continue to share my reflections and opinions on city government. I will probably rename my blog and open it up to comments so it becomes more of a dialogue than a monologue.

While I don't take office until January, there are some pretty pressing issues facing the city. There is a City Council meeting Monday (November 13) with two big items on the agenda: Sewer rate increases, and a building height ordinance deliberation.

With several serious sewer failures in the past year the city is revisiting a 2001 CFP (Capital Facilities Plan) which recommended increasing monthly sewer charges from the current rate ($36 residential) to a new rate ($48 residential) over several years. The 2001 CFP recommended a series of projects to shore up the system, none of which have been funded because current rates just cover basic maintanence.

Discussion will continue on a proposal to limit building heights to 28 ft instead of 35 ft in R1, R2, and R3 zones. 35 ft may still be allowed as a conditional use, or for multifamily dwellings (in R3). I think the public hearing has been closed on this subject, so if you still have comments you might address them directly to the sitting city councilors before the meeting.

Finally, I'm pretty concerned about the effect of the Highway 35 closure on our city. Right now we just a have a flurry of speculations about when parts of the road may be accessible, but the economic effect could be anything from devastating (long closure, no ski traffic or seasonal jobs) to a real economic boon (all traffic through Hood River for a while). If you haven't seen pictures of the damage it's hard to imagine a speedy repair. But Dave Riley, COO of Meadows Ski Area has a more upbeat assessment. We'll have to hold tight and wait for news from ODOT over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Many Happy Returns

Tuesday evening I was given the following preliminary results. The top three were elected to a four year term on City Council:

Paul Blackburn: 1197 votes
Arthur Babitz: 1163 votes
Carrie Nelson: 920 votes
Martin Campos-Davis: 796 votes

I could say many things, but tonight I'll just say one: It is both gratifying and overwhelming that 1162 people formed enough of an opinion about me in the past 8 weeks to mark the oval next to my name. Tomorrow morning I need to start taking down lawn signs, write some thank-you notes, and start doing my homework.

Update: Final updated results were published in the Hood River News Wednesday morning.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

For Political Junkies Only

I've used my blog for a pretty candid discussion of my campaign, but I decided to leave the strategy discussion for election day. I wrote this post a few days ago so I wouldn't be either smug or full of second thoughts.

The election math: We have less than 3200 voters in the city, of which I expect about 2000 to cast ballots. I expect ~35% of the voters who cast ballots will not vote for city council. With a 4 person race for 3 seats, that means I need about 1000 votes to get a seat. Here's my strategy to get >1000 votes:
  • get name recognition
  • convert name recognition to support
  • get out the vote
First, some details on Oregon election law (note-- there will be some major changes in 2007). State law requires you to form a Candidate Committee if you plan to spend more than $300. This requires a few forms, and a dedicated bank account to handle all moneys collected or spent. If you keep your total income/ expenditures under $2000 you have much simpler reporting rules. My total expenditures were ~$1750, so I was allowed to follow the "light" reporting rules.

I funded my campaign with money contributed by friends, most in $50 chunks. $50 is a magic number in Oregon-- the state allows a $50 credit on your income tax for qualified political contributions, so many of my friends will get their $50 back when they file their Oregon state income tax next year. It's surprising how few people actually use their $50 credit each year. It allowed me to raise the money for my campaign relatively painlessly.

To get some name recognition I put up about 60-70 lawnsigns (~$300), trying to get at least one on every main street or neighborhood. I also put up 3 larger signs (~$90)-- 2 opposite Safeway, and one at the intersection of Front St and State St.

I then printed door hangers (~$300) and started the door-to-door ($27 for voter list). I started by talking much too much-- while I learned a lot I didn't cover enough ground. I also learned some simple math for canvassing: The ideal team is one man and one woman. No social commentary intended, just observation-- On days when I went alone or with another man I made far fewer positive contacts than on the days I had a female helper. Another lesson I learned-- the color picture on the door hanger was really worth the extra money. You have so few ways to make a real connection with the voter. A good color picture creates that positive first impression, which can hopefully be converted to support.

I did three major waves of emailings to my known supporters ($0), asking them to contact friends and colleagues. I think this was pretty successful, since several people told me they received notes from several people telling them about my campaign.

Through my canvassing I found that my name recognition was pretty good (people had seen the signs), but they were wondering who I was. Several of my friends "volunteered" to send Letters to the Editor ($0) to the Hood River News, so I got a bit of free advertising as well as some public endorsements. This helped to give people a little bit of an image of what I stand for-- or at least who supports me.

I put a lot of effort into my submission for the Hood River News Q&A on the city council race($0), as this would be the only chance for voters to make a direct comparison between the candidates. I believe a large number of voters read this "interview" carefully and weigh the responses heavily in their choice.

I wasn't nearly as good canvassing as I had planned, so I decided I needed to do a direct mailing to the 3300 registered voters. I did a small postcard (~$1000 w/ postage) which was timed to arrive in the mail with the ballot. Again I used a color photo, a brief message, and pointers to my website and other contact info so they could find out more.

My hope was that my website could do the conversion from name recognition to support for some percentage of the voters. While I don't have much proof, I had ~500 site hits and numerous people have told me they read the website. I think it was well worth the effort (and the price($0)). By tracking the day-to-day hits, I think the letters to the editor were the most effective way to get people to my website, followed by canvassing, with the postcards trailing.

I've spent the past 2 months going to just about every public event to get my name and face out there. But by far I feel the most productive way to convert the name recognition to support has been by courting the opinion leaders in the city. Since so little info is available about city council candidates, many voters will ask someone they trust who they should vote for. I tried to get to as many of those people who people trust so I would be one of their recommendations.

I also did a few "meet and greets" where friends invited neighbors over to meet me and discuss the issues. I wish I had done more of these-- while you only meet a few people you can really make a strong contact. If I were starting again I would put more effort into the meet and greets than canvassing, on the theory that those strong supporters will convert their friends and neighbors.

Turning out the vote has been difficult-- I don't want to do random phone calls because I think they are annoying-- so I have been trying to do a phone tree/ email tree with my supporters contacting their friends. I'll admit that my energy has declined a bit in the last days of the campaign. With vote by mail you know there are fewer and fewer voters to convince each day, so it becomes harder to put energy into the campaign.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Election Day, 1857

On the second Monday of November, 1857, the voters of the Oregon Territory had a ballot with just two questions:
  • Do you vote for the Constitution? Yes or No?
  • Do you vote for slavery in Oregon? Yes or No?
The Constitution passed and slavery failed, paving the way for statehood in 1859.

This November 7 there are 10 statewide questions for voters to answer "yes" or "no." Your mark will decide these questions, just as the voters did on that ballot 149 years ago.

On the Waterfront

Debate about uses of Hood River's waterfront probably predates the city's incorporation. Going door-to-door I've heard a lot of opinions on the latest incarnation of this discussion: the Lot 6 waterfront park. There are the two major schools of thought:
  • We need to build this park for the future of our city.
  • How can we spend money on a park when our sewers are collapsing?
To me, development of this park is only a small part of the story. For years we've had an underutilized industrial park in our city's front yard. The City and the Port have butted heads, creating a difficult environment to make anything happen. For the first time in a long time I think the will is there to move forward-- carefully.

A little history: The Port of Hood River is a corporation chartered to promote the economic development of the port district-- initially by purchasing and maintaining the Hood River Bridge. They own much of the waterfront land, but the City controls zoning of those lands. City government answers to city voters, the Port answers to voters in the port district (most of Hood River County less Cascade Locks). City voters have expressed strong support for park development along the waterfront. Many county residents have been more interested in bringing industry to the area to generate jobs. These divided interests have been at the core of the conflict for many years.

It seems like we're finally seeing the elements of a compromise. City and port district residents both seem to see the value in mixed use development on much of the port lands-- and the dedication of a part of that land as a city park is the cornerstone of this compromise. I don't want to oversimplify the remaining challenges, but as the park moves closer to reality I think it will become easier to line up the political will to agree on the framework for developing the land near the park. Yes, there are funding issues, riparian protection issues, zoning and planning issues-- but the number of people arguing for 100% industrial development or against development of any sort seem to be dwindling. A compromise promises the aesthetic, environmental, and recreational aspects demanded by city voters, while providing the real economic benefit that empty industrial land has been unable to provide.

I've addressed the funding issues in the Hood River News and I'm sure we'll have plenty of additional chances to discuss the details, but for now I'll just make a sweeping prediction: the funding will happen, because so much more is involved than just a waterfront park. This is one of those rare instances where the actions we are taking will create a real legacy for the future residents of our city. Remember what the waterfront looks like now, because it will soon be history. Our job now is to make sure the end result will have been worth the wait.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Support Your Local Politician

We all like to make jokes about politicians, but somehow they don't seem as funny to me anymore. As a part-time candidate for a part-time unpaid office I can hardly consider myself a politician, but maybe I'm starting to identify with them a little? Don't think I'm becoming an apologist for "Beltway Business as Usual," but I have learned a few things:
  • Campaigning is hard work. Going door-to-door, asking for votes, always smiling and being prepared to talk about any issue-- it's not easy. I've only been doing it for two months, and no one is following me around with a camera.
  • It's often frustrating to try to get out a message when very few people are listening. I now understand the role of the professional media consultant and the sound bite-- they basically force feed the public a message. It's easier than explaining to people why your message is important.
  • It's humbling to be apply for a job where all your friends and neighbors decide your future. Can you imagine if every few years everyone in your workplace got together and decided if you could keep your job-- most of them without even speaking to you?
So here's a joke. I hope it isn't in poor taste, but I don't have a media consultant to test it for me: These two cannibals are sitting in a restaurant reviewing the menu. It says "missionaries, $5. politicians, $50." One cannibal asks the other, "Why are politicians so expensive?" He answers,"Do you know how hard it is to get them clean enough to eat?"

See what I mean? Not so funny any more. Next time a politician knocks on your door, offer them a cookie or something to drink.

More Press

The Hood River News sent each candidate a set of questions to respond to in 200 words or less. We had the weekend to work on our assignment. You can read all of our responses here. It's not quite a debate, but I think this is a pretty good format for people to get to know the candidates a little better. The responses aren't as spontaneous as a debate or a real interview, but frankly none of us is a professional politician. While a debate might be more dramatic, this is probably as realistic a view as you'll get without speaking to us directly (or reading my website!) It's obvious that each of us spent some time thinking through our responses-- and it's also obvious that none of us had a professional team packaging our message for the public. This format tends to fall flat for the higher offices, where it seems the candidates just turn the questions over to their media consultants.

KIHR radio also did a nice series a few weeks ago. Mark Bailey interviewed three of us on different mornings for about 25 minutes during "drive time." This show is a great public service. I'll confess it was my first time on radio and I found it pretty intimidating. Speaking to an audience you can't see isn't easy. While Mark is sitting next to you, you both have headphones on and he is frequently looking at his engineer for cues. I think it will be much easier next time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


A week ago the Hood River News had a banner headline about the affordable housing report: "The $385,000 Question." I think they had the right instinct-- give people a number to help them understand such a difficult to pin down concept. Unfortunately they chose the wrong number. It seems $385,000 is the average sale price in Hood River County last year. An average can be easily skewed by a few multi-million dollar sales, which is not at all uncommon in our real estate market. Economists prefer looking at medians (out of 100 sales, the price of the 50th most expensive), or other specific points in the market price distribution-- and compare them with some similar measure of household income. Those numbers will not be distorted by the high end of the market. That comparison can give a much more accurate picture of how hard it will be for a local worker to buy a house.

Why does this matter? Without a good metric in place, it will be very difficult to track our progress. The affordable housing report recommends a long list of items for the city and county to consider to address the problem. We'll be discussing affordable housing for a while. Let's agree now on what numbers we'll be tracking.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On the Campaign Trail

Knocking on a stranger's door and trying to engage them in a discussion about city government may seem like an awkward task, but it's not. Virtually everyone is polite, many seem grateful to see me making the effort, and a sizeable percentage have something they want to talk about. City government is about small things that affect our everyday lives, so I guess it's not surprising people have strong opinions.

It should be no surprise I've been hearing a lot about the new water rate structure and ground water runoff surcharge since the water bills just arrived. The biggest complaint is the hardship it imposes on fixed income residents. Several different people commented to me that Hood River yards look "less green" this summer. I understand the motivation behind the new water rate structure-- promoting conservation and raising money for the new water pipes-- but based on the level of anger I heard I'd like to see a review of the rate structure at its one year anniversary. I hope some tuning could reduce the hardship in specific areas while still generating the needed fees for system improvements.

I'm keeping a running list of issues people have asked me to look into. For now I'll present it unfiltered and without analysis or solutions:
  • Water rates
  • Sewer failures
  • Parking at downtown shops, especially during events
  • Parking at the library
  • Parking at the post office
  • Disruption to neighborhoods during construction (parking, noise, trash, dirt, traffic)
  • Lax monitoring/repair of damage caused during construction (roads, signs, curbs)
  • "View wars" as houses vie to get a view blocked by the house in front of them
  • Absentee owners/ landlords
  • Illegal apartments (noise, parking issues)
  • Truck brake noise on the freeway
  • Protection of waterfront/ riparian zone
  • Perception of anti-business attitude in city government
I'm not suggesting I will be able to solve all these problems, but I will try to follow up on several of them. I hope the other city councilors get a chance to solicit some raw, unfiltered feedback from the city residents. I think there is a difference between what people will tell you when you send them a survey and what they will tell you when you knock on their door.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Really Hard Problem

A while back I wrote about the limited scope of city government-- police and fire, water and sewer, zoning and planning, roads, etc. I went on to say you had to have a really big ego to try to do something at the national level. Today I saw a presentation which has caused me to question that thinking. Our last governor, John Kitzhaber, came to Hood River to promote the "Archimedes Movement," which is his attempt to deal with our health care problem. He gave a fascinating 30 minute talk on the nature of the problem and the possible form of a solution. He managed to explain the health care crisis in the same way I have tried to talk about local problems like our budget. He is trying to find a non-partisan solution to a non-partisan problem.

I could not do justice to his exposition, but fortunately there is a DVD available locally. Mosier's own Suzi Conklin, former owner of the Wildflower Restaurant, is our local Archimedes Movement coordinator. She will be arranging local viewings of the video. I will be hosting one soon, or you can contact her to get one in your neighborhood.

I don't know Dr. Kitzhaber, but I can say for sure that Suzi does not have a really big ego. Yet she is willing to tackle an important and complex national issue, starting locally. I think I need to eat my words. A little idealism can substitute for a lot of ego.

What does this have to do with city politics? Take a look at our general fund budget. 62% pays for city employees (police, fire, city staff). One-third of that amount, or more than 20% of our general fund goes to benefits-- mostly health insurance. As a city council member there is little I will be able do to change this equation, but I will sure be rooting for Suzi and Dr. Kitzhaber as they try to bring some rationality to this part of our city budget.

Monday, September 25, 2006


There is a proposal to be discussed at today's council meeting to allow "accessory dwelling units" in the zoning code. These would be either attached apartments or small units on the lot of a single family residential unit (R1, R2, R3, C1, or C2). There are several good reasons to allow ADUs. ADUs allow families to take care of elderly relatives, or they allow people to take in a renter to help them stay in their house as property taxes climb. They could also create a stock of lower priced rentals which we clearly need-- people who work in the city frequently can't afford to live here.

The trick is to create these units without just creating more expensive vacation rentals. The city is considering a range of alternatives from requiring proof of full time residency and a long term lease for an ADU permit to requiring proof of local employment.

There are several side issues such as parking, building size, and compatibility. I'll be happy to fill you in on the details, but I'd like to talk about a different aspect of the discussion. A developer rose to speak on the issue at the last council meeting. He suggested that with too many restrictions there will be few if any ADUs, and that if the Council instead passed an unrestricted ADU ordinance the market would work it out.

He was probably stretching his point a bit, but you can argue that in a pure free market there should be no zoning. I like free markets, but this is one area where they can fail us. I'm a strong believer in zoning and land use planning rules. If done fairly, they can increase the value of all real estate in the city. You can compare neighborhoods in Hood River, with relatively strong zoning and land use rules, to neighborhoods in Bingen, with relatively weak rules. I know I prefer my neighborhood in Hood River.

I think most of us can agree on some of the broad goals we would like to achieve through zoning: safe neighborhoods with convenient shopping and a healthy commercial and industrial sector to provide employment. Without a set of reasonable rules about what can be built where you are likely to get a complete mess. But the more subtle questions are where there is some controversy.

How directly should the city legislate what it wants to achieve? Should it legislate exactly what it is trying to accomplish, and risk creating rules that will exclude many uses that are within the intent of the rule? Or should it create general rules to gently guide the market, but risk unintended consequences? Every zoning change is an experiment-- with major potential impact.

In this particular case, I think the consequences of under-regulation are worse than the consequences of over-regulation. A surge in the number of vacation rentals will clearly change the character of many of our neighborhoods.

If we over-specify the rules we may fail to see the ADUs we are hoping will add to the lower cost rental market. I'm not insensitive to the affordable housing problem in our town, but it will be far easier to open up the rules a little in the future than it will be to close them down.

I hate to say it, but ADUs are one of the easier zoning problems to deal with. Let me know what zoning related problems you are seeing in your neighborhoods, and what you think might be the solutions.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Business License-- Bunt or Foul Ball?

I just got back from a long City Council meeting this evening. For a second time the business license proposal was discussed, but no action was taken. It will be back for consideration in two weeks. I continue to be impressed at the quality of public comment at council meetings. More than a dozen people spoke-- mostly opposed, though two spoke in favor. All the statements were clear and well reasoned, people avoided repetition, and many good metaphors were recruited to "drive home" the points.

I am against this ordinance because I think it doesn't really accomplish anything, but I am starting to understand what its supporters are looking for. Unfortunately I think they are supporting an abstract concept rather than a specific ordinance.

Ordinance 1901, to greatly simplify, states that it provides for the collection of a business license fee from all city businesses to pay for generation of a database of businesses to help the city enforce a wide range of health and public safety rules.

Numerous reasons have been advanced for the ordinance, but in the comments and council deliberations two bells keep getting rung. The first seems trivial, but it has resonance. Many people would like to be sure the police and fire departments know how to contact them in an emergency. The second is much more difficult. Established businesses want to guarantee a "level playing field". They have to play by a complicated set of rule-- everything from health inspections to sign ordinances-- and they are not happy that there are less legit businesses "flying beneath the radar" (or "skating by") and unfairly taking some of their business.

As a business owner I can understand the frustration. I design and manufacture electronic instruments, so believe me when I say I understand unfair competition. The connection I haven't been able to make yet is how this license program helps solve this problem. In what way will this license program improve compliance with existing rules? I just don't get it. It explicitly does not raise revenue to pay for more code enforcement staff. It does not "add teeth" to existing code. It just makes a list, and charges businesses for that privilege.

The discussion has brought up several points which I would like to see the city work on independent of Ordinance 1901:
  • We need to prepare an information packet to tell new businesses what rules they will have to deal with in our city
  • We need to be sure we allocate the funds so the fire marshal can inspect structures on a regular basis
  • We need to change Title 17 of the municipal code to prohibit hazardous materials in home occupation businesses (as defined by the State Fire Marshal in ORS 453)
  • We need a streamlined process for people to report suspected code violations, since that's our best hope for improved enforcement.
  • We need a voluntary program to allow businesses and individuals to register emergency contact info with the city.
Unfortunately discussion of this ordinance has been generating more anger and cynicism than real solutions. I frankly hate to see our City Manager spending so much of his time trying to craft a business ordinance when we have such a serious budget problem. Maybe this idea should be revisited in three years after our deficit is history, but for now I'd like to see him "keep his eye on the ball."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Budget 101: Part 2

If you've read Budget Part 1 you might have a few questions:
  • How did we wind up with a budget deficit?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What are we doing to fix it?
  • Why is this a campaign issue?
1) We wound up with a General Fund deficit by spending more than we took in for several years in a row. Oregon law requires each fund to be balanced in each budget, but somehow we went for year after year without either finding enough money to cover the shortfall or cutting expenses and services to match our income.

2) The deficit matters for three reasons:
  • As long as we're spending a significant portion of our income just to fill the hole, we aren't spending it on all the things we need to keep our city great. We're not increasing police or fire budgets to match inflation or population growth. Any idea which requires funding, no matter how widely supported, must be put aside for another day.
  • State law requires us to fix it. In the most extreme case, the state will make us fix it. They'll make the choices on how our taxes are spent, not us.
  • If we don't fill the hole quickly it will be even harder. The City has very little control over its income-- property taxes are set by statute, many of the fees depend on the health of the economy. If building or tourism slow down or property values decline, revenues will be reduced. We won't be able to balance the budget without major cuts to services.
3) What are we doing to fix it? The City has fixed the systemic problems that lead to the deficit. Any of you who've run a business will be surprised at this list, but the City is now:
  • Not spending grant money until the grant is received.
  • Tracking expenses department by department against budget (budget vs. actuals) to catch overspending before the end of the year.
  • Transferring money between funds to account for costs one fund incurs on behalf of another (example: all funds pay part of city manager's salary).
  • Raising fees for city services (examples: planning review, licenses, etc.).
  • Spending less money.
4) If we have a plan in place to fill the hole, why is this a campaign issue? A plan is just a blueprint. To successfully fill the hole we will need each budget and each financial decision over the next three years to match this plan-- and we need to be lucky.
  • We need to be sure our City Councilors are not afraid to dive into the budget spreadsheet and ask lots of questions.
  • We need to avoid " 'No' fatigue." It's hard to say "no" to spending money on every project you really want to make happen-- but we can't relax our fiscal discipline.
  • We need to assume things will not go to plan. We need to constantly look for problems, and fix them aggressively.
I have been told I shouldn't talk about the budget too much in my campaign. It's not easy to explain, and since services aren't being cut yet most people don't see the problem. I guess I don't see the point to running for office without saying anything. And don't worry, I'm not quitting my day job.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On a Lighter Note

Since you've just plowed through some dense info on our city budget, here's some lighter fare. Hood River Municipal Code Title 9.20.040 prohibits frequenting a bar for the purpose of soliciting another person to purchase drinks. As I understand it, up until about WW2 taverns would employ women who would pretend to be patrons and ask men to buy them drinks. The bartender would give the woman a watered down drink, but she would get a cut for helping run up the tab.

Budget 101: Part 1

Our city General Fund has large negative balance. This is very bad-- though it's not an easy issue to get people excited about. In this article I'll explain in broad terms how the city budget works. In Part 2 I'll explain why our financial situation is so precarious.

Municipal budgets are made up of multiple funds, each of which is an independent account with income and expenses. For example, there is a road fund which gets income from the city's share of the gas tax, and is used to do things like fix potholes. Most of the funds have dedicated sources of income which are spent on a specific city service.

The "General Fund" is a catch all operating fund which includes many different functions. It includes the salaries and related expenses for the police and fire departments, as well as city employees such as the City Manager, planning department, finance department, and legal services.

Each fund should begin and end each year with roughly a zero balance. Income and expenses for a fund should net to zero each year. If a fund overspends for a year, it should be corrected in the following year by either increasing income (taxes, fees, grants), or decreasing spending (services, employees).

Our budget year starts on July 1, and we don't yet have ending numbers for last year (July 1 2005 to June 30 2006). But here's the trend in the General Fund leading up to this year (rounded to nearest $10,000):
2003-2004 -$400,000
2004-2005 -$580,000
2005-2006 -$1,180,000
Word has it we began 2006-2007 with a balance on the order of -$800,000. It's an encouraging improvement, but still a very big hole to fill-- especially when you see that income for the fund is only between $2,000,000 and $4,000,000 per year. And when you look at the details there are a few more scary surprises.

Here's where the General Fund revenue comes from. I'll use the budgeted numbers for 2006-2007. Remember we haven't actually seen this money yet. The city expects an income of just over $3,700,000 this year. Here's where it will come from (we hope):
34% from property taxes (limited by statute)
18% from franchise fees (from gas, power, cable, etc.)
15% from federal grants (for waterfront park)
12% from charges to other funds for services
9% from the city room tax
4% from licenses and fees (such as fees for reviewing plans)
3% from other state taxes (such as cigarettes and liquor)

Here's how we plan to spend the General Fund:
34% to the fire department
34% to the police department
16% to parks
7% to reduce the deficit
4% to planning department
4% to administration
Sliced a different way, 62% of the General Fund pays for salaries and benefits of city employees-- mostly police and fire.

Tomorrow I'll talk about why all these numbers represent a real problem for our city.

Monday, September 04, 2006

First Press

I received my first press coverage this weekend. Half the people I ran into at a fundraiser for the Waterfront Park had seen it-- though I suspect that crowd tracks the local news a little more closely than the average voter.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


When I started telling friends I was running for City Council more than half of them said things like, "No, for real?" I'm not above playing an elaborate gag, but I had to ask why it seemed so unlikely that someone who is always talking about local issues might actually seek office. In a word-- cynicism. People are so convinced that every level of government is broken that they can't imagine a serious person wanting to waste their time participating.

I think it takes an enormous ego to participate in national politics. You have to believe that you can by force of will or manipulation of power change the course of an entire nation. But is it really an act of egotism to believe that one person might make a difference in a city of 6000 people?

I'm not going to give a sermon on public service. Well, in a way I am. I vote and debate national issues with friends and try to convince them to participate, but I can at some level understand their sense of futility. But if you don't like what's going on locally can you really make the same arguments? Is it that hard to imagine convincing a bunch of your neighbors that you have a good idea? Yes, institutions have inertia, and there are plenty of people who will never change their minds-- but you don't have to win every time to make a difference.

Hey, blogs are supposed to have an occasional rant.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

All Politics Is Local

City government is about basic services and infrastructure. Police and fire, water and sewer, traffic and roads, building fees and zoning rules, ambulance service. What have people been talking to me about? Their neighbor's construction project, the size of their water bill, the rezoning of their neighborhood, the price of real estate, downtown parking, brush blocking the sidewalk. I've never liked the catch word "livability", but I can't think of a better term for the combination of big and small issues which affect our families every day.

There are some common misconceptions about city government. The City does not control the Port of Hood River or Port lands such as the Marina Park or Event Site. It can't change the tolls-- but it can change the parking meters. The City is only in charge of some of the area parks-- we elect a Parks and Rec Commission regionally who manage the others (Example: City owns Jackson Park, but not the Aquatic Center). ODOT is in charge of state roads and highways, but the city fixes the potholes on your local streets. The City does not run the schools. City jurisdiction ends at the city limits-- Hood River County Commission deals with services outside the city limits.

Another thing most people are confused about is where the City gets the money to provide these services. I'll do a tour through the City budget soon which should clear that up.

I'll also be writing much more about the "big" issues which will be before the Council in the near future: Zoning will be front and center, as the city tries to rework the zoning rules to address the pressures of development, lack of affordable housing, and the effects of Measure 37. Budget will loom over everything-- the city has a major budget deficit which it will have to correct before we can talk about anything that costs money. Waterfront development and the new waterfront park are again on the agenda, but this time I think we have the political will to move it forward-- if we can find the money.

The Process

Being the sort of guy who likes to understand how everything works (yes, I'm an engineer) I started the process by reading the Oregon State Constitution, the state statute governing elections (ORS249), and the Hood River City Code. I found that I would need 20 valid signatures of registered city voters by 72 hours before the filing deadline of August 29 to get my name on the November ballot. I also found that there can be a $150,000 fine for lying on my filing forms, and that no one in Oregon may serve in public office if they have challenged anyone to a duel. I managed to get the forms and petition signatures together without lying or dueling, and the City and County have verified the "adequacy" of my submissions-- so the race is on!

We have six City Councilors and a Mayor-- three of the Councilors and the Mayor are up for election this November. This race is non-partisan, so there is no primary election. My name will appear on the November ballot along with three incumbents in a "vote for any 3" format. Top three vote counts take the seat. The three incumbents would have been uncontested without me in the race, so I suspect they are not thrilled to see me. But I'll add that the two I've spoken with have been very gracious in welcoming me.

Just by filing I've guaranteed there will actually be some discussion of local issues. The race will get some newspaper coverage, and we'll have a candidates' forum. Democracy lives!

Hood River has about 3200 registered voters in 3000 homes, which means politics here is largely a door-to-door operation. I figure I will need between 900 and 1200 votes to win a seat, depending on turnout. This is a small town and I know a lot of people, but not that many! My opponents have their names in the paper every month or so because of their Council roles, so I really need to focus on name recognition. That means overcoming my shyness and introducing myself to a lot of strangers, as well as putting up lawn signs and passing out leaflets.

In Oregon any campaign which spends over $300 needs to form an official campaign committee and do regular filings with the state. That's a big motivation to run my campaign on a shoe string budget. Printing leaflets and signs for <$300 will be a challenge. Note to state legislators-- this limit needs to be updated just a bit. Note to political junkies-- I promise to get into the local issues in detail, but there's just a little more intro I need to do.

Hello, my name is...

"Hello, my name is Arthur Babitz and I'm running for City Council." I'd better get used to hearing myself saying that, because I will have to say it a few thousand times in the next 8 weeks. Last week I filed to get my name on the ballot in Hood River, Oregon. This is an entirely new adventure for me-- while I follow local and national politics closely, I've never had the courage or time to put myself in the middle of it. But now a combination of issues I care about and prodding by friends and neighbors has convinced me to jump in. I'll get into the political process and the issues in later posts, but to start here's some info about Hood River for those of you following this from afar:

Hood River is a city of about 6200 residents on the Columbia River in Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland. Hood River's economy is a complex mix. Hood River has historically had three major employers:

• agriculture, driven by nearby orchard producing famous pears, apples, and many other crops
• tourism, especially sports related tourism such as hiking, biking, kayaking, windsurfing, kiteboarding, skiing, and snowboarding
• forest products, with nearby county, national, and private forests

More recently the area has seen several hi-tech companies set up shop, and the city is full of independent business owners such as engineers, architects, writers, graphic designs, who brought their work with them so they could enjoy the area with their families. And with numerous B&B's and nearby wineries, weddings have become a significant part of the local economy. Perhaps the best way to summarize the local economy is to say the people of Hood River are a varied bunch who have found many different ways to support themselves so they can enjoy the natural beauty and opportunities for recreation with which we are blessed.

Hood River has received more than its share of national attention lately as magazines such as Outside, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure have included us in their "best places to ..." lists. Like many locals I read these articles with some pride, but cringe a little with the thought of how we will deal with the increased traffic and development. But I'll save the politics for later posts.