Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics regarding the City of Bellingham Budget, 2014 edition…

The City of Bellingham adopted its budget this week, and Riley Sweeney put out a blog and pie chart ( showing where revenues come from and expenditures go. I think citizens should look into these matters, as in the end it’s *our* budget for our community.  As Mayor, I used the triple bottom line to ensure that the budgets met our values and realities; Mayor Linville touts a Lean approach.  Both approaches suggest understanding downstream ramifications of budget and other planning efforts.  Unfortunately, looking at Sweeney’s blog it’s hard to tell whether the budget meets those metrics or not.

Sweeney’s analysis fails to present much meaningful information, instead obscuring understanding by conflating general fund and capital fund revenues and expenditures. In any given year capital projects (roads, sewers, new municipal buildings such as libraries) often run at three or four times the level of the general fund. Capital projects are funded through separate revenue streams, and their ups-and-downs are not generally indicative of the health of the overall budget.

For that, we need to look at the general fund, and consider not only whether it is balanced this year, but where it is leading us in the future. I did not have the time to undertake a comprehensive analysis, but a cursory examination revealed some issues of concern. Having heard of planned additional hiring in the police department, I decided to look at that budget. What I found is concerning. While the crime rate has largely been flat (down in 2012, up a bit in 2013, down again this year), we are adding substantial costs over time.

What does this mean? Well, over the past four years and projecting forward to the end of this biennial budget, the cost of the police force as a percentage of the city’s General Fund budget has risen from just over 36% of the budget to over 39% by 2017. That’s a significant jump; generally one would expect individual components of government to remain relatively equal, unless there is a compelling reason to provide additional priority. In this case, the numbers suggest that crime is being handled relatively well.

Since Mayor Linville’s first full budget in 2013 (for better or worse, she inherited the lion’s share of the 2012 budget from my administration, as it was passed and adopted, per state law, in December 2011), the police have added 12 positions (through the just adopted budget). Those additions are reducing the City’s ability to fund other aspects of civic life important to the community, and with insufficient discussion. While we want a crime rate of zero, most of us don’t want zero crime if it also means zero parks, zero libraries, and a reduced quality of life. Adding police staff, just like adding staff in any other department, is not just a one-time expense. With existing police pensions not yet fully funded, we are adding new obligations before we’ve fully funded existing ones. Furthermore, we are reducing our ability to address hard times, should they hit again. The hardest thing I did as Mayor was lay people off; we should not be hiring without a plan to fully cover our costs—and budgeting an adequate reserve is an integral piece of that.

police staffingpolice costs as share of GFCrime Numbers

We have a smart and dedicated police force in our community. During my term, even as revenues were relatively flat we experienced large drops in overall crime, as the police changed tactics and began more community engagement and also began using more of the emerging tools at their disposal to better understand trends and opportunities to disrupt them. Adding officers–and other budget costs–without understanding on the front end how they will be paid for suggests we are already forgetting the painful experiences of the Great Recession. These costs already result in underfunding the reserve funds by 2017.

And remember, this budget gets a bump of over a million dollars in new B&O receipts from removing St. Joe’s exemption from paying those taxes; absent those revenues this would look even worse. Prudent budgeting might have considered reserving some of those funds for future challenges–though I am glad to see some funding to help address health care for those in need, as this will likely reduce costs to the city over time, and is also ethically the right thing to do.

The bottom line is that fiscal stewardship matters, and an understanding of what’s going on in the city budget requires looking at the General Fund separately from capital expenditures. Hopefully this helps start a conversation.

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Thanksgiving Thoughts, 2014

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. As a kid, it was the getting together with our neighbors and whatever relatives happened by to share good food and games with people we loved; relaxing in an indulgent way that was too-often absent most of the year. As I’ve grown older, my appreciation has only grown.

As a nation, we are blessed in many ways, but like many who are fortunate, we fail to fully appreciate it most of the time. Thanksgiving offers a day for intentionality; deliberately taking stock of where we are, and recognizing the fortunate position in which we find ourselves.

With few exceptions, in you live in the US you are privileged. For many of us, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear—are taken for granted as givens. For most people in the world, they are not. Even in the US, we are not where we should be. Despite the passage of 150 years since the Civil War, we fail to live up to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. Events in almost any city in this country show a stark division in how young black men are treated, and older ones, too, in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts. Women, too, remain disadvantaged nearly a century after universal suffrage removed the explicit gender bias of our Constitution. We forget our history as we are too-ready to turn our backs, and the figurative back of our hand, on newer arrivals.

We are a country of great richness, a country whose greatest strengths lie in its great diversity—diversity of people, of opinions, of approaches to solving problems great and small. But we are a country divided more and more along the lines of class and privilege. As we sit down with friends and loved ones today, let’s reflect on how this day presents our better selves to ourselves and the world. As we return to our everyday lives tomorrow, let’s commit to working to be the change in ourselves we want to see in our communities: to be kinder, more generous not only with our cash, but with our compassion. And let’s work like hell to leave the world better for our children and their children than it is today.

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Second Chances

A major solar storm sent two enormous bursts of plasma in our direction Thursday and Friday. Not large enough to cause major disruptions to our infrastructure, they do afford some to get a pretty spectacular show of the aurora borealis–northern lights.

My hospital room has a pretty good west-facing view, without quite as much light pollution as many other areas of the hospital, so I hoped I might catch a glimpse myself. One of the advantages to boarding in a hospital is that you rarely go more than three hours without an alarm going off, or a nurse or orderly checking your vitals. While I at times wonder if the prevention is worse than the threat, having my own opinion that uninterrupted sleep is a positive factor for healing, as long as I am stuck in this system, I’ll find the advantages I can. In this case, the TV weather forecast said the best viewing time would be between midnight and 3am, if we got a show. I went to sleep at 9:30, confident I would be awake at some point in that window.

Sure enough, an alarm went off at 1:50. I don’t know what it was for, but I got out of bed and went to my window, where I got to see…nothing. Last night, the show was a no-show. When the forecasters today said there was a chance tonight the show would appear, especially where I live, close to the US-Canada border, it got me thinking about second chances.

My life has been blessed with an abundance of second chances. I went to four colleges before I earned a bachelor’s degree. My career path has been varied and interesting, putting it mildly. After a decade of being politically active, I thought I might run for office one day, but then went a different path. twenty years later, through happenstance, I ran for Mayor of Bellingham, and won. And the pinnacle of second chances is the chance to simply live. Again, I have been fortunate. I had several life-and-death moments as a kid involving injury or disease; each time I emerged to carry on.

I don’t know why I was so fortunate; I had classmates who were not. I was not better, nor smarter, nor richer than they were–but I survived. And after forty years of mostly avoiding close calls, I’ve been visited by another one. Gratefully, I emerged to carry on again. The best way I can think of to honor my good fortune is to appreciate it. To live life fully; to give back to the society and planet. To be as joyous as possible while not Panglossian. And to appreciate those around me, both close and mere acquaintances. We’re all together on this fragile planet, sharing our fragile lives. Let’s make the most of our chances.

I’m getting up again tonight to look for the aurora.

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Remembering Alice

Remembering Alice.

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Walking in other’s shoes

Walking in other's shoes.

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Move to the Right…

It’s the holidays again, and our thoughts turn to seeing loved ones, eating big family meals, and perhaps thinking with gratitude our our situations.  At the same time, Christmas sales, the pressure to buy gifts, the looming deadline for gifts to be wrapped and under the tree without little ones discovering who Santa really is adds stress to many of our lives.

Perhaps it’s that stress that explains what I witnessed a couple days ago.  Explains, but does not excuse.  I was driving south on the Guide Meridian, just south of its intersection with I-5, when I saw an emergency vehicle’s red-and-white lights approaching.  Now the Guide literally follows a longitudinal meridian, so it’s as straight as an arrow.  I probably noticed the lights when they were a quarter mile behind me.

Maybe because as Mayor, I picked up a lot of insights from Bellingham’s firefighters and their Chief, Bill Boyd, but I immediately pulled over to the right shoulder.  I also know that route is a direct way to the hospital, and when a life is on the line, the paramedics will move with appropriate speed. It’s hard to tell speed from your rearview, and in this situation, you shouldn’t try.  Yet, after I pulled over, car after car passed me. Some may have been distracted by their phones; others perhaps are simply distracted a lot of the time.  Others, though, would pull into the right lane, go a bit further and then pull onto the shoulder just ads the Aid Unit reached them.

If I met any of those folks on the street, or in my home or theirs, I’m sure they are almost all decent, well-meaning individuals.  But in that situation, as in so many situations where we are in our cars, we feel insulated from each other, from reality, and from consequences.  But when you are taking risks, by trying to outrun a paramedic unit for a bit, getting away with it most of the time isn’t good enough.  The odds are unforgiving; eventually someone gets hurt–and for what?  So you can make the light fifteen seconds sooner?  So the car behind you doesn’t pass?  The people rushing to the hospital, both the patient and the paramedics rendering aid, deserve to get through their day without additional injury or death.

The holidays are a special time; we all want our families to be safe and healthy above all else.  So let’s remember that when you see emergency lights in your rearview mirror, and move to the right immediately.  You can feel good about doing the right thing, and lives will be better for your actions.

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Thanksgiving 2013

I missed a few days of running this week
But if it's quality that matters
Today more than made up the difference
Today I ran the Pine and Cedar Lakes trail

It was not a quality of speed, nor of distance
Rather, it was the most important quality:

The trails I ran today lack the flashy beauty
Of their sister trail, Fragrance Lake,
Which lies just over the ridge.
Fragrance Lake has the ostentatiousness
Of views through madrona
At the Salish Sea

Pine and Cedar focus inward
On a quiet beauty, with depth to discover
If only one explores a little
THe kind of beauty which captured Aldo Leopold
And was in turn captured by his words
In "A Sand County Almanac"

My run began with a steep hill
One hundred yards in the burn was already intense
As my muscles remembered their purpose
When I finally arrived at a point
Of somewhat level trail
I checked the mileage
(I confess; I'm a data guy):
Ninety-three hundredths
Of a single mile

Already I'd passed countless streams
Had books' worth of deep thought
And blank journals' worth of zen moments
While the wind whispered among the doug fir
And the hemlock and cedar
Funny; I saw no pine

I continued up for another
Six-tenths or so
Distance and speed not being my aim
But imply a few moments
To contemplate, alone
Things I am thankful for
Or should be
On this day of reflection

Turning around, I head down
This is the hard part:
Finding a balance between
Careening out of control
And braking too much
Both approaches hurt my feet
And I am not in good enough shape
To fly helter-skelter down hill
So I brake, a bit too much

What took half an hour to climb
Is run in half that on the return
The sun is shining brightly today
A rarity here, so all the more precious
I am thankful for this day
This world
And my small part in it

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