Baker City Herald Editorial Board
A sense of impending financial crisis pervaded Baker City Hall for a few evenings this week but fortunately the specter of laying off police officers and firefighters was short-lived.
The debate among the city’s budget board was, in the main, a healthy one.
It served to remind city officials — though we hope no such reminder was truly necessary — that the economic outlook, though improving, is far from rosy.
And that uncertainty needs to be reflected in the labor contracts city administrators are negotiating with the three unions that represent most city employees.
Each of those unions has a five-year contract that expires June 30.
That’s an unusually long period but we supported the deals when they were approved in 2008 because the duration allowed the city to accurately forecast its personnel costs — which make up about 70 percent of spending — for five years.
Those contracts seem especially generous today in part because they took effect just months before the economy started its historic plunge.
Police received a 3-percent raise for each of the five years.
Firefighters got 4 percent the first year and 3 percent each of the remaining four years.
Members of the third union, which represents mainly public works employees, received between 2 percent and 4 percent for each of the five years (the contract stipulated annual raises based on the federal Consumer Price Index, which ranged from -0.4 percent to 3.8 percent during the contract period, but the amount could not be less than 2 percent nor more than 4 percent).
Many of the local residents whose property taxes go to City Hall didn’t get any raises during that period. Some lost their jobs.
We commend city officials for being responsible in budgeting; the city is fortunate, and somewhat unusual these days, in that it doesn’t need to lay off employees to balance its budget.
But the budget board members who this week critiqued the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year were right to point out that the city can’t maintain its current enviable financial position and still approve lavish, long-term contracts.
It’s far better — and wiser — to acknowledge this now. Financial challenges, unlike wine, almost never improve when they’re stored away and forgotten for a while.
Trust, once broken, is hard to regain.
Certainly that old chestnut applies to the recent revelation that some IRS officials were about as impartial as a political attack ad as they went about their duties.
That the IRS would target conservative groups for especially keen scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status is troubling enough.
But the truly frightening aspect of this scandal is that it raises the specter that the agency might have engaged in similar political profiling, only in ways potentially more harmful and punitive to Americans.
It’s entirely conceivable that IRS agents also used political affiliations to decide which individual taxpayers or businesses to audit.
Or, as appears to have been the case with the clandestine profiling of groups seeking tax-exempt status, that the agency relied on such information to decide who wouldn’t receive extra attention from the federal tax-collecting apparatus.
If there is anything positive to be said about the current situation, it’s that the IRS’ transgressions were so blatant that we doubt Congress will cut any corners as it investigates.
We hope not, anyway.
No agency deserves more than the IRS to have its actions subjected to a merciless, but fair, examination.
No matter where Idaho Power Company routes its new power line through Northeastern Oregon — and we have no doubt the 500-kilovolt line will be built — some people will be mad.
A major power line pretty much defines the concept of NIMBY — Not In My Backyard. The trouble, of course, is that every place is someone’s backyard, whether or not that’s literally true.
Idaho Power’s proposed Boardman-to-Hemingway project (B2H) has gone through several permutations since the Boise company proposed it six years ago.
Had you paid attention only to the recent spate of letters to the editor on this page, and to comments posted on the Herald’s website (www.bakercityherald.com), you would have ample reason to believe that the Baker School Board is comparable, in partisan political terms, to the U.S. Senate or the Oregon Legislature.
The school board, as it should be, is a non-partisan body.
We say “as it should be” because overseeing the management of a school district, which is what the board does, is a task for which neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither liberals nor conservatives, have any special acumen.
Yet the implication of some of the letters we’ve published recently, and of some online comments, is that a candidate’s party affiliation or political philosophy determines whether he or she is worthy of this office.
We don’t believe this is the case.
Based on the six candidates’ written responses to the Herald’s questionnaire, which were printed on Pages 6A and 7A of the May 1 edition, and on their statements during a public forum on April 30, we believe each of the six candidates — Rosemary Abell, Rick Stout, Kevin Cassidy, Mike Ogan, Karen Spencer and Richard McKim — could be an effective board member.
We hope voters who have yet to fill out their ballots will be influenced not by letters and comments which have more to do with the writer’s political ideology than with the Baker School Board, but rather that voters will base their choices largely on the candidates’ own words and accomplishments. We’ve been impressed as well by the several thoughtful letters we’ve published which emphasize candidates’ strengths rather than their opponents’ alleged weaknesses.
We’re not suggesting that there’s no place for criticism even in a non-partisan campaign.
But concerns are about a candidate’s fitness for office are much more credible when they’re based on the candidate’s actual statements or actions which are directly related to the duties of a school board member. Critiques which focus instead on the candidates’ supposed political positions, or worse yet, on those of their supporters, ring hollow in our ears, and, we hope, in the ears of undecided voters.
It’s a comment lament around here, and sometimes a legitimate one, that our relative handful of votes don’t much matter against the urban masses.
But occasionally we can get together and exert our influence.
A recent example had nothing to do with politics, or candidates. But without a concerted effort, largely accomplished through social media, to encourage people to cast their online votes, a local group that wants to buy new, safer playground equipment for Baker City’s Geiser-Pollman Park might not have won $15,000 in a nationwide video contest.
There was considerable anxiety as the Playground Improvement Project went up against 10 other videos — the top 5 in total online votes each receives $15,000.
The Baker City video, done solely by volunteers, finished fourth.
Although the final tally wasn’t available, preliminary numbers show a narrow margin among the competing videos. Thanks, then, go to everyone who voted — in this case each one was valuable.
We’re fortunate to live in a town that has both dedicated volunteers capable of finding creative ways to raise money for worthwhile projects, and residents willing to support those efforts.
As we expected, the Oregon Legislature has watered down a bill that would give landowners much more authority to kill wolves on their property.
The amended version of House Bill 3452 is a slight improvement over the current situation, but it’s not likely to benefit ranchers in Northeastern Oregon, where all of the state’s known wolf packs live and where all confirmed wolf attacks on livestock have happened.
The original version of the bill would have allowed landowners, on their property, to kill any wolf that is “reasonably believed by the person to have attacked or harassed, livestock or working dogs.”
That’s an attractive standard for ranchers, to be sure, but it’s too subjective to pass muster in the Democrat-controlled Capitol.
Besides which, that word “reasonably,” so beloved by lawyers, would likely lead to prolonged court battles that would more than offset any advantages the law might afford ranchers.
On the one hand, since wolves have proved that they will attack livestock in Oregon, a rancher could argue that any wolf he sees near livestock has at least “harassed” livestock, another less-than-concrete term.
On the other hand, were a rancher to shoot a wolf and then be unable to prove the animal had harassed livestock — offer up a calf with claw marks, for instance — odds are high that pro-wolf groups would complain despite the law.
The amended version attempts to strike a balance, albeit one which does little to help ranchers.
The main change from the current situation is this: A landowner who sees a wolf attacking livestock or working dogs could, if the bill becomes law, kill the attacking wolf without getting a permit from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
This isn’t likely.
Although ODFW has issued kill permits to many landowners in Wallowa County over the past several years, none has caught a wolf attacking livestock.
But as rare as such an episode might be, it makes more sense to allow the rancher to act at that instant to protect his animals than to require that he obtain a permit that he might never have occasion to use.
Sometimes good intentions don’t make good laws.
Such is the case with a proposed Baker City ordinance that would prohibit people from using tobacco products — including smokeless chewing tobacco — in city-owned parks and recreation areas, including the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway.
The City Council is considering the idea, which was suggested by Benjamin Foster, a student at Eastern Oregon University who’s also an intern for City Manager Mike Kee.
We don’t think there’s any compelling reason to impose such a restriction on an activity that’s already banned in most buildings except private homes.
As the nation sends it collective condolences to Boston, the city from which so much of America’s history derives, we’ve noticed that, besides the grief and the anger, there is a sense that such random attacks are beyond our ability to prevent.
Sadly, this is true.
No matter how robust our security, no matter how vigilant our citizens or dedicated and skillful our law enforcement officials, a certain number of the terrorists who are bent on killing the innocent will find a way.
Yet as terrible as the Boston Marathon bombings were, another tragedy happened just two days later that was both more deadly, but also one we might have had some control over.
The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Texas, killed at least 14 people.
The state of Oregon’s insatiable appetite for new sources of money might soon extend to charging a fee for documents which date, in some cases, to the Civil War.
Although “thirst” is more appropriate than “appetite” in the case of Senate Bill 217.
The bill, introduced by Gov. John Kitzhaber on behalf of the Oregon Water Resources Department, would impose a $100 yearly fee on each of the 85,000 water rights in the state. Each permit would be subject to the fee, although individual farms and ranches, many of whom have more than a dozen separate water rights, would pay a maximum of $1,000 per year.
According to the Water Resources Department, the new fee is needed because the department’s share of the state’s general fund has dropped.
The clear implication is that water rights holders should be paying more to the agency that oversees the distribution of water in Oregon.
Which sounds fair in a theoretical sense.
Except the actual connection between the state agency’s budget, and the administration of the approximately 3,700 water rights permits in Baker County, is in fact quite tenuous.
Baker City’s sidewalk fee has made meaningful progress toward fixing the city’s dilapidated walkways, and at a modest price.
The fee, instituted in 2008, collects $1 per month from households, and $2 per month from businesses. This amounts to about $50,000 per year.
The city makes 75 percent of the money available to property owners to pay a portion of the cost to repair or replace sidewalks.