Earning a Raise Requires Earning Trust First

How does a government agency “earn” a raise?

The Eugene City Council has been asked to consider giving the Parks and Open Space Division a raise by increasing the stormwater fee, adding an extra dollar each month to every Eugene Water and Electric Board bill.

Eugene residents love their parks and open spaces. They voted in 1998 and again in 2006 to expand the park system. The bond measures specifically targeted land acquisitions and capital improvements. As a result, the acreage of Eugene parkland has doubled. What hasn’t doubled is the department’s operating budget.

If every Eugene park had a tip jar, you and I might be happy to throw in a dollar every month, but that’s not the plan being considered. City councilors who want to claim it’s a fee and not a tax are kidding themselves.

If I don’t want to pay the parking fee at Mount Pisgah, I can bike there or carpool or hike someplace else, but there’s no avoiding the stormwater “fee” that EWEB collects. Electricity and plumbing are no longer considered optional, so the fee is not avoidable. If citizens have to pay it and government gets to spend it, that’s a tax.

At the end of the day, whether it’s a tax or a fee or a few quarters thrown into a tin cup doesn’t matter. It’s a little bit more money in government’s pocket and a little bit less in ours. So we’re back to my original question. What can a government department do or say to convince us they deserve a little bit more?

It might be easier to first suggest what they should not say.

Not: “We used to win awards and be admired by our peers, but not anymore.”

Not: “We can’t do the job anymore with the tools and funds we have.”

Not: “Other towns are doing cool things and we’re not keeping up.”

Not: “We’ve raided our operating funds to pay for new stuff and now our backlog of deferred maintenance has become a crisis.”

Not: “We’ll be creative and frugal, inclusive and amazing, as soon as we have more to work with.”

Not: “Just tell us what you want most and that’s exactly what we might spend the extra money on.”

Simply put, it comes down to trust and respect, in both directions.

Voters taxed themselves (twice) to expand the park system. Voters approved the money with relatively few restrictions, trusting city officials to be inventive and opportunistic.

The city has leveraged those funds with creativity and consistency — land swaps with school districts, stopgap solutions for Civic Stadium, easements and land trust collaborations to extend the Ridgeline Trail. It’s a long list of accomplishments.

When I had employees, I gave raises to the ones who stayed late to double-check their work, or who asked to be involved in more than their job required. If they showed me they could do their job well, but were also ready for more, that earned my respect and I found ways to show it.

The ones who were always behind in their work, begging for extra time or new tools — I worried about them. If they groused that the work was too hard or too much, I’d look for ways to relieve them of that pressure. The only raise they got was being lifted off their seat and shown the door.

I’m not here advocating for or against the tax increase the city has requested, much less the vehicle they’ve proposed for collecting it. I’m simply pleading with city leaders to not prey on our sympathies to justify their request. We can do better than that and we always have.

When my friends come visit Eugene, I have a quick routine of sites I show them: Spencer Butte and Skinner Butte, Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail, Kesey Square and the four-way stop that is our city’s center. I usually end my tour at an unnamed city park where Central Avenue ends, near Laurelwood Golf Course.

What can be said about a town that ran out of names before it ran out of parks? It says a lot.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.