Monday, August 24, 2009

An Apology

The cemetery debate has inflamed into major proportions, so today I am writing to post an apology.

In last Saturday's post I stated, forcefully, that I and the other city council members want to begin using interest from the perpetual care fund to offset the cemetery subsidy. I recounted my memory of a discussion in which staff -- and all the rest of the room -- misunderstood this position to mean that the council wanted to begin using the principal from this fund.

It appears that it was I, and not the room, who was guilty of the misunderstanding.

I have been advised this morning, by staff, that other council members did request, in other settings, information about using the perpetual care fund principal to offset the cemetery subsidy, and that this was in fact the thrust of Thursday's discussion.

This leaves me wondering whether I have become the octogenarian driver who called his wife on his cell phone to complain that everybody else on the freeway was driving the wrong direction.

But this also puts me in a position of anxiety. While I am deeply concerned for the cemetery, for its long-term maintenance, and for the city's need to find property for expansion, I am equally concerned about a potential breach of promise. I cannot justify raiding the principal of the perpetual care fund. Those who have paid into the perpetual care fund hold certificates guaranteeing that the money will be used as promised, and the City cannot go back on that promise.

But enough of that. This is an apology.

The second reason for the apology is for the life Saturday's post gave to a deeper concern. Readers who follow my husband's blog noted the second-hand analysis of the debate he posted over the weekend, in which he asked, "Is there a serious problem with the staff?"

I hope City staff will take me at my word when I say that I did not intend any personal criticism of their work when I gave a narration of a miscommunication. I did that to give the public a glimpse into the workings of meetings that very few attend.

I stand by what I said in Saturday's post, that we must chalk the miscommunication up to human nature, and move on.

I am not the mayor, and I am not trying to be the mayor. I do not make personnel decisions, but I do work with the personnel he appoints. I have observed many times that our City's growth calls for a much larger staff than our budget supports, and that this puts many of our staff in impossible positions. I would like to solve the problem, but I cannot bring myself to criticize them for their hard work.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Another cemetery correction

$5500 for a cemetery plot? NOT!

ABC News erroneously reported that "plot prices may spike to as much as $5,500," and that "the city council will vote on the issue during a public meeting Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m."

Yes, the city council will vote Tuesday night. The price under consideration is $1,000.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cemetery Funding

This is a matter of principal.

More precisely, it's a matter of interest.

Caleb Warnock, who writes with more style than any two other journalists, missed a key point in today's Herald when he covered yesterday's council debate about cemetery funding. But he's not to be blamed -- so did almost everybody else in the room.

The article discusses various challenges to cemetery funding, including the rising cost of land for expansion and the $500,000 subsidy the City makes for maintenance and operations. Council discussion focused on the impossibility of covering both maintenance and land replacement through burial fees alone.

There was considerable debate about the perpetual care fund. This fund, as its name suggests, was established to provide maintenance for the cemetery in perpetuity. Its revenue source is a $200 fee paid as part of the purchase price of a burial plot. The fund, which by now has grown to nearly $500,000, yields $400 per month in interest which may be used for cemetery maintenance.

The concept behind any such trust is that one invests the principal and spends the interest. But here's where the misunderstanding begins.

"So desperate is the City," says the Herald, "that they are debating dismantling the cemetery's perpetual care fund. . . . [Mayor Thompson] and others agreed the city should consider changing its ordinance so the city can get its hands on the principal."

Not so, not so!

We council members stated, repeatedly, that the City should begin applying the interest -- the interest -- toward maintenance, as was originally intended. Armed with copies of the ordinance which we held in our hands, we insisted that the ordinance allowed spending the interest -- the interest -- for this very purpose.

Sadly, staff misunderstood our repeated pleas, and could not be dissuaded from their frustratingly irrelevant position that the principal -- the principal -- could not be expended except in case of dire emergency.

It was to this stubborn insistence that Mayor Thompson said, as was reported, that this "seems like a useless fund to me." Useless indeed, if the interest is not to be used as intended. But it is only as wise as wisdom itself -- and as obvious, even to a room full of politicians -- for the City to continue to grow the principal.

The Daily Herald is not to be blamed for this mistake. We'll chalk this one up to human nature -- as a mother of teens, I'm good at this -- and move on.

If only the interest -- $400 per month, $4800 per year -- could make a bigger dent in the $500,000 subsidy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Recycling Letter

I walked with myself,
talked with myself,
and myself said to me . . .

I read last weekend Barbara Christiansen's article in the Daily Herald about American Fork's opt-out recycling program. It reported, among other things, that while 2,746 households have opted out, the City's take rate (the number of households recycling) has nevertheless jumped to above 50 percent. It also said that, while the City can expect to save $73,263 in tipping fees, it nevertheless raised recycling fees from $4.50 to $5.40.

I also received my August utility bill in the mail last weekend and noted the 90 cent increase. I was not surprised, therefore, when the following angry letter appeared in my inbox.

Dear Councilmember Rodeback:

I am appalled and outraged that the City has increased my recycling bill by twenty percent with its fancy new "opt-out" recycling program. Did anybody with a brain vote for this? I thought we were Cavemen in this city, not Neanderthals. If the newspaper is to be believed, then the City will raise close to $40,000 annually in revenues to help with "billing expenses" on top of the $73,263 the City saves in tipping fees. That's a very generous full-time salary for somebody. I know business executives who don't make that much money. And whatever happened to economies of scale? Shouldn't the recyclers be able to make more money at lower cost now that they have more customers on their routes? And couldn't you at least find a company that recycles glass, if you're going to extract this kind of money off the backs of us impoverished taxpayers? It's governments like you that are the problem with this country. I'll thank you to stop raiding my pocketbook for ill-thought-out measures like this one.


Heidi Rodeback

Nasty letters are a fact of life for elected officials, so I was able to take this one in stride. I sent out a gentle, reasoned reply which I now share.

Dear Heidi:

Thank you for your letter regarding the opt-out recycling program. I want you to know that I feel your pain in this and all other matters, seeing as I have the distinct honor of being your self. I empathize with your concerns about economies of scale and about the new, hidden, unjustified revenues -- truly, a mid-year tax increase -- which will flow into City coffers because of this program. I can only validate your point of view.

In fact, it was for these very reasons that I voted against this measure last February. Please read more about this vote at my blog entry dated February 9, 2009.

As for your other question, yes, all four of my colleagues have brains. While I disagree with them over the mechanics of this measure, I nevertheless respect their intelligence and their concern for sustainability. I might point out their further concern for the price of land, and their thought for the difficulty of finding new landfill space when today's landfills are full. Anything that postpones that day will pay dividends in the long term.

I don't say this to most of my correspondents, but I think you are one who will appreciate my advice when I say to count 10 next time before sending such a strongly worded letter. Remember that your elected officials are, and are supposed to be, lay leaders elected from among the people. They give generously of their time and must do their best according to their lights. Who knows, maybe next time around it'll be YOU sitting in this seat.

Thanks again for your inquiry.

Sincerely yours,

Heidi Rodeback
American Fork City Council