Saturday, February 28, 2009

Library Lover Laments Lost Hours

On February 9, the American Fork library reduced its hours of operation. Formerly open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, it is now open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from noon to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Nobody is happy about this, least of all myself. During a recession, the local library becomes more important than ever. It's your first stop if you have to develop new career skills or learn how to bake bread. It's where you go if you have to disconnect your home Internet service. It's your family's cheapest recreation option.

This is not just conjecture on my part. The library's monthly circulation figures for 2008 show increases ranging from 20 to 33 percent over the same months in the two prior years, beginning in July 2008. (Remember last July, when gas prices hit $4.13 per gallon?)

The library is one of the most important services the City offers. It grieves me to see its operations cut during its time of highest demand. But such is the reality of the City budget.

Sales and property tax revenues, which fund the library and the rest of the general fund, are down approximately ten percent this year. Given a general fund of approximatley $15 million, this means the City has had to trim approximately $1.5 million from the budget. Accordingly, all departments have cut 10 to 15 percent from their budgets.

Reducing library hours yields an annual savings of $100,400. Other departments with significant cuts include the engineering department ($124,000), streets ($328,000), building inspection ($65,600), police ($75,900), and capital equipment ($214,200).

While it is true that "an investment in knowledge pays the best interest" (Benjamin Franklin), it is equally true that "if you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher's stone" (Benjamin Franklin).

So I'm supporting the reduced hours -- at least for now -- and rejoicing that we don't have to close the library all together, as is happening elsewhere around the country.

If you love the library as much as I do, please join me in reminding the City Council how much you value those extended hours. If all goes well, we'll see the lost hours restored when the economy rebounds.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Opt-Out Recycling

Once again, I voted against the recycling ordinance, even though I firmly believe recycling is right. I objected not to the idea of recycling, but to the ordinance itself. I don't like ordinances that cost our residents unnecessary money.

During the February 10 City Council meeting, I raised two objections to the ordinance. One was explained to my satisfaction. The other was not.

First, I objected to the $50 fee a resident incurs if, after the 60-day opt-out period, he wishes to return his container and stop recycling. I learned that $50 is the actual cost of the blue container used in our city for curb-side recycling, and that Allied Waste, our contracted service provider, will incur losses when it must retrieve unwanted containers. Without the $50 fee, the company would have to eat not only the pick-up expense, but also the cost of the container.

If I were to go to Target or Wal-Mart to purchase a container of similar size and durability, I would pay at least $50. I'm willing to concede that this is a fair fee.

My second objection is not so easily overcome, at least not in my mind. I object to the fact that the ordinance raises the monthly pick-up fee from $4.50 to $5.40.

Bear in mind that this fee covers the cost of pick-up only, and is not needed to offset the cost of sorting or marketing recyclables. According to my cocktail-napkin calculations, if the same trucks must cover the same routes, but may now divide their costs among 5,000 more households, then the cost per household should go down, not up.

At present, only 1,000 out of 7,000 American Fork households recycle. Adding 5,000 more households (an arbitrary assumption, but reasonable enough) would raise revenues six-fold, meaning Allied Waste could multiply by six the number of trucks it sends and still not need a higher fee.

I have been told that Orem, when it went city-wide with its recycling program, lowered its per-household fee to $3. But American Fork will not see a lower fee, because the City is under contract to Allied Waste to pay $4.47 per month for each container it empties. So, I asked, thinking about renegotiation, when does the contract expire? Nobody could tell me -- nobody from the City, and nobody from Allied Waste.

The increased fee, it turns out, goes to cover administrative costs on the City side. Which administrative costs those will be is not specified.

Turning my napkin to the other side, I did some more figuring. 6,000 households (my assumed take rate) multiplied by 90 extra cents per household, then by twelve months per year, equals $64,800 -- at least a full-time salary.

Whatever those unspecified administrative costs are, I'm certain they don't require an additional full-time hire. To my eye, this fee is a hidden, mid-year tax increase. This is not something I can vote for, not in uncertain economic times, and not without knowing what the money will be used for.

So I voted nay, but the ordinance passed without me. I hear that some residents have already begun responding to the notice on the Web site by opting out. I believe in recycling and would like to see the program succeed, but I can't fault those who disagree, or who wish to continue recycling through other means without paying $5.40 per month.

For further information on the program, visit the American Fork City Web site. For further explanation of my views on recycling, check out two of my earlier entries here at the blog:

Should American Fork Recycle?

Rethinking Recycling

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Except as they shed light on my positions, I try to keep my personal affairs out of this blog. Its purpose is to account for my work in the City. Today, however, I make exception to this policy so that I may account for my whereabouts during the two months since my last entry.

On January 16, for reasons more selfish than altruistic, I donated a kidney. I donated it to my daughter. It was a win-win situation for both of us. She needed my kidney, and I needed my daughter.

Because said daughter has no wish to become a public figure, I will not describe here the details leading up to this event. Instead, I wish to share a few insights from the experience which, though they have little bearing on city politics, have informed my views on the national health care debate.

Insight No. 1: The free market is at the foundation of nearly every medical advance.

I do not believe my daughter would be alive today without the free market. It has made (at least) four vital contributions to our medical economy which government planning could never replicate. They are:

  1. Specialization and exchange. I marvel to consider the breadth of specialties we drew upon and the depth of each specialization. To list just a few: nephrologists, nurse practitioners, surgeons, nurses, dieticians, social workers, technicians, teachers, writers, researchers, lab personnel, office managers, administrators, financial counselors, pharmacists, transplant pharmacists. There are also pediatric variants of many of these. At Primary Children's Hospital, there's a team who does nothing but install IVs all day.

  2. Risk management (insurance). Insurance is one of the most ingenious and indispensable innovations of the modern age. It enables us to pool our money to take care of society's most urgent and unpredictable needs. My daughter's condition came as a complete shock to us. There was no family history of it and no apparent cause for it. It set in almost overnight; we were less than a year from diagnosis to total kidney failure and transplant. In that year, we amassed bills in excess of $400,000 which our insurance company cheerfully paid. I am keeping these bills to show my children when they come of age. The lesson: Never, never go without medical insurance.

  3. Appropriate compensation. Consider the case of the surgeon. He has completed and paid for at least twelve years of higher education to be able to do what he does. During these twelve years, he received no compensation, and must now with his income not only repay his educational debts, but also provide for an expensive lifestyle. Now he must deal with blood and gore on a daily basis. Worse than this, he faces the daily risk that a patient will die in his hands, and when this happens, the surgeon must pick up and go on tomorrow. Facing constant emotional trauma, he and his family need to be able to retreat to a comfortable home and recreate on a frequent basis. I need to know that my surgeon is handsomely compensated so that he can sustain his difficult lifestyle. Without generous compensation, few others would choose his career path, with the result that succeeding generations would languish on long waiting lists for surgery.

  4. Competition. Competition means that each provider must give peak performance or lose patients to his competitor. I like what this means for me, the consumer. A case in point is the case of Medicare vs. the private insurance company. Kidney failure, thanks to the 1972 Congress, results in automatic Medicare coverage, which works in coordination with my family's private medical insurance. When I called Medicare to ask about my daughter's benefits, I was told that Medicare does not explain benefits and does not answer questions. My private insurance company, by contrast, has dedicated a caseworker to my family. She calls me frequently for updates; she answers my every question; we are on a first-name basis. Excellent, individualized service is what competition means in the medical arena.
Insight No. 2: Free market notwithstanding, government still has a role to play in the arena of public health.

I believe there is a place for Medicare and Medicaid, but these should play supporting roles to the market's starring role. Apart from this, government can and should exercise its stewardship under the heading of public health. Three f'rinstances:

  1. Regulations and standards. I appreciate the FDA's role in screening legitimate from spurious medical claims. I also believe our nation needs to move to electronic medical records, but this cannot happen unless the government creates uniform standards.

  2. Advocacy and awareness. When I think how many of our costliest medical conditions are caused by obesity -- in many cases, a preventable condition -- I applaud the impulse for advocacy and awareness campaigns. Problems like this impose costs not only on individual patients, but on society at large. Clearly a compelling public interest is at stake. Air pollution in Utah is another prime example. Much of it can be reduced by changing behavior. Those of us who idle our cars in the drive-up lane at the school or the bank can learn to turn off the ignition -- but we will probaby not do so unless the state undertakes an an aggressive public education campaign.

  3. Infrastructure. Electronic medical records, cited above, are an example of infrastructure. Another is walking routes. I firmly believe American Fork needs to create more safe and convenient walking routes. These have a direct bearing on public health.

Insight No. 3: There is widespread need for organ donation.

A few simple facts:

  1. In the United States, almost 100,000 men, women and children currently need organ transplants.

  2. In the year 2005, a typical year, there were 7,593 deceased organ donors and 6,895 living organ donors resulting in 28,108 organ transplants.

  3. This means that approximately 72,000 souls each year are left waiting for organ donation. Of these, 6,000 die every year -- 18 every day and one every 90 minutes.

  4. A deceased donor can save as many as 15 lives, potentially providing one heart or two heart valves, two lungs, two kidneys, one liver, one pancreas, two hip joints, two corneas, bones, connective tissues, skin, and blood vessels.

  5. Ninety percent of Americans and every major religion support organ donation, yet fewer than thirty percent of us actually become donors at death. The largest reason for this is that grieving families are reluctant to give their consent. If you wish to become an organ donor on your death, don't just mark your driver's license; inform your family. Donor families incur no expense for donation, and most donor families say donation helps their grieving.

Living kidney donation is considered major surgery, but thanks to modern medical miracles (i.e. laparascopy) recovery time is brief, two to six weeks. Now at four weeks post-op, I am still banned from physical exertion, but insofar as the doctors have not restricted mental exertion, I am back to meetings.

My colleagues in the City have been more than generous in their support, accommodating my absence by scheduling meetings and agendas around the surgery. Thanks to this, I only missed one Council meeting and one work session, so I feel I am still pulling my weight.

(Just don't tell my doctors. I'm not supposed to lift anything over ten pounds.)

Water Rates

I drafted this entry before Christmas, but chose to sit on it as emotions were running high at the time. I post it now so that the record will be complete.

While I was out in January, the Council voted -- wisely, in my opinion -- to flatten the culinary water fee structure and reduce the impact to the highest users. It did this by removing $375,000 of annual depreciation from the cost-recovery model, but leaving $425,000 for the same. (The original depreciation budget was $800,000.) This leaves the City vulnerable, insasmuch as additional revenues will need to be generated to maintain the culinary system as it wears out -- but if this keeps our business climate healthy, we will probably come out ahead.


Tahitian Noni. McDonalds. Wendy's. Durfey's Dry Cleaning. Parkers.

Many of our city's largest, best beloved, or longest established businesses are also among our 40 largest water users. This is not to suggest that they consume water wastefully, but they do supply water-intensive services to thousands of customers each month and so rack up a large bill.

The new water rates took effect in November, but will not be felt until the first meter reading in March. Most of these top 40 users will see increases as large as 600 percent. (I note parenthetically that American Fork issues 900 commercial business licenses annually; of these, only forty will see increases of this magnitude.)

Why did the City enact such punishing rates? Do the rates hurt businesses disproprotionately? Should more of the cost be shifted to residents (who already face a 300 percent increase in their household water bills)? Should the City consider a flat rate instead of the current structure which increases with usage? Does the present City Council just have it in for business?

No, it doesn't. But I can't comment further without first discussing the background.

When voters approved the pressurized irrigation bond in 2006, they also voted to triple their water bills. This increase came from two components: the addition of the pressurized system with its associated construction and delivery costs, and a simultaneous increase to culinary water rates. The new rates were made public in the voter information piece which was mailed to all households. This piece was also placed on the City Web site and published as an insert in the American Fork Citizen.

But for a minor tweak (fifteen cents per household per month), the rate schedule as it appeared in the voter information is the same as the structure now taking effect. It is a tiered schedule which charges a base rate of $14 for the first 6,000 gallons, then charges overage rates. Overage rates start at $2 per thousand gallons from 6,000 up to 8,000 gallons; tiers climb from there until the rate hits $6 per thousand gallons for usage above 200,000 gallons per month.

The purpose of the tiered structure is to promote conservation of culinary water, a commodity which has fallen short of need in American Fork since 2006.

In other words, the shortage is the reason for the rate increase. Because of the shortage, water became expensive in American Fork in 2006. By then, the City's water supply was maxxed out; it could no longer supply the city's needs without additional infrastructure and supply. The creation of the pressurized irrigation system meant that culinary water would be available once again in plentiful supply. Households and businesses could then continue to consume according to their customary patterns.

Absent the pressurized irrigation system, the City would have had to start denying building permits and many of the businesses named above may well have had to leave the community -- either for lack of water or for lack of rooftops and customer base.

The need had been discussed and debated since the 1980s. In 1988, the system was estimated to cost the City $4.6 million. That figure would have created the initial system for a much smaller community; expansion for growth would have been entirely paid by new development. By 1994, that initial cost had risen to $9 million. 2002 costs were estimated in the $20 millions. The City Council actually approved a backbone system in 2002, but never implemented it.

I did not join the Council until 2006, so I cannot comment on this or on any other forces which led the City to procrastinate until costs ran to the $48.95 million of the 2006 bond.

Nevertheless, these two facts together account for the high water rates taking effect this year: First, that American Fork procrastinated the decision for nearly two decades, and second, that voters approved the current system and rates in 2006.

Still, it came as a shock when the City warned the commercial water users what they could expect in their April bills. Their protests, and the backlash of public opinion that has followed the media coverage, suggest that many have forgotten what it felt like to be out of water in 2006. We seem to have forgotten how voters first clamored for action in the 2005 mayoral and city council elections, then, the next year, approved this very large and very bitter pill.

Background aside, American Fork's businesses do make a number of convincing arguments. They point out that we rely on their sales tax revenue. Touche. They point to the poor economy, and decry American Fork's woeful sense of timing. They won't be able to compete with their counterparts in neighboring cities, they say -- touche again.

Then there's Lillian Parker. She makes sure I remember how much we all like her burgers and shakes. And the head of the local restaurant association points out how many college educations our restaurants pay for, how they employ our teenagers and give them their work ethic. Another very good argument.

Overall, I find myself sympathetic to their pleas. I find myself in agreement with Mayor Thompson when he points out that our community cannot thrive if our businesses do not thrive. I do not know whether there is any remedy to be had. But if a way can be found to provide relief to businesses without further punishing the residents or reneging on what the voters approved, I will gladly support it.


Though my blog took the last two months off, I myself was able to work off and on via email and telephone. Mayor Thompson was gracious enough to collect written statements from me on two separate hot-button items and to make sure my views were represented in the discussions.

They are artless, but I'm posting them here for the sake of the record.

Water Rates.

1. The City's first obligation is to the taxpayers and voters who approved the bonds together with the fee structure that would both retire the bonds and provide revenue for the next capital upgrades which would be required in 30 to 50 years. Providing relief to businesses who are hurt by the new fee structure is also a reasonable goal, consistent with our desires to be friendly to businesses and to increase our tax base, but this goal has to be secondary to the primary goals of providing water and protecting the residents, voters, and taxpayers.

2. The tiered rate structure, which climbs up to $6 per 1,000 gallons, is inherently unfair. My read of the businesses that use water in this quantity is that they do not use water to excess, but that they use it on behalf of large numbers of consumers. The purpose of the tiered structure was to discourage homeowners from wasting culinary water out of doors. In this goal, the rates overshoot the mark. I have been told that residential usage typically stays in the 12,000 gallon range. Charging excessively for usage above 200,000 gallons will not effect homeowners, but it will punish businesses who use culinary water for legitimate culinary needs.

3. Synthesizing points 1 and 2, above, the conclusion I reach is that it would be fair to hold residences harmless by keeping the same base rate and overage rate up to 12,000 gallons (or so), then to enact a flat fee for usage above that figure. In order to provide some measure of relief to businesses, I would be amenable to removing $250,000 of annual depreciation from the cost model. This would still ensure residents that revenues would be available for repair and upgrades when necessary, so that we would never again see the crisis of 2006. I could also vote to remove $500,000 from the cost model if that were the only way to move forward, but would rather not.

4. We cannot provide water below cost. (This should go without saying.)

Road Impact Fees

The present City Council has created revenue streams for growth-related infrastructure by adopting impact fees for roads, water, sewer, public safety and parks. In accordance with state law, these impact fees are justified by their place in a capital facilities plan which shows the city's plans for infrastructure and calculates the percentage of infrastructure needs which may be attributed to new growth. Because American Fork is one of the first communities to undertake this level of planning, our impact fees are higher than those of our surrounding communities. Understandably, this fact has drawn protest from developers. My notes (below) date from when the controversy was ripe. On February 5, the Council acknowledged an omission in the capital facilities plan and directed staff to create a new category, "strip mall," which will reduce fees for such developments, but will not compromise the future of a much-needed revenue stream. The February 5 vote sets in motion a 120-day public notice process for this action.

1. I support revisiting and updating the capital facilities plan on which these are based, if it is true that recent UDOT announcements render the plans obsolete.

2. I would support any petition submitted by a prospective business showing that their patronage is less than our projections show -- if the planning commission is willing to endorse the numbers.

3. I would support the creation of a new "strip mall" category, which usage places lower demand on roads and may therefore be assessed a lower fee -- so long as the planning commission accepts the numbers.

4. As to revenue models, the City needs to recover through its impact fees 100 percent of capital facilities needs attributable to growth. We have not got another revenue stream to cover these costs; I have not got the political will to raise property taxes to do so; we cannot continue to defer maintenance and construction. I cannot support any figure less than 100 percent.