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State of the City Address: 2008

The following is the transcript of the State of the City Address, which is being delivered by West Linn Mayor Norm King at various times and locations in the coming weeks:

To my West Linn neighbors: Today I'm here to report on the revival of West Linn.

Over the past year the city has remained steadfast in its resolve to restore West Linn to greatness, and to renew public confidence in the city. Today I will share with you more about the foundation we've laid for a thriving community; and the future plans for our continued success.

As many of you know, I recently retired from my day job. With my retirement came the opportunity to reflect on the current state of our city and the future of our community. I heard a quote about retirement, and I believe this very much; 'A man can't retire his experience. He must use it.' I've gotten questions from people over this past year asking why I continue to spend late nights at council meetings and long hours working on city issues. What it all comes down to is the fact that I love this community, and I want to continue to share my experience to make West Linn a better place for all of us.

I will be the first to admit that there are times that public service can be daunting. Many of you have likely read the blog posts, or seen the public testimony on television, and it can seem like we're constantly faced with vitriol and spite. Some people in this community seem intent on promoting a message of gridlock and distrust, and it can drag down your spirit and make you question your motives.

But then, something happens. It might result from an article in the newspaper, a story you hear over coffee, or an event you attend in your neighborhood. You learn about things happening in West Linn and it gives your attitude a kick in the pants. You realize that this community isn't defined by the incivility of some, but the positive activism of many. If you think about your past year, I know you've had similar experiences where you're reminded why West Linn is a great place to live. Here are some highlights I want to mention:

Have you been to Mary S. Young Park lately? We all know it's a wonderful place to visit, and that's due in large part to the efforts of the 'Ivy League.' Dave Kruse, Stephen Raff, Allison Benski, Lorie Griffith, Steve Miesen, John Linman , as well as many others, dedicate hours of work to clear ivy and other invasive species and move over 70 tons of gravel in rebuilding trails. This group of volunteers reminds us that collectively we can make change and create beautiful spaces in West Linn. I had the chance to 'drop the first can' for the Citywide Food Drive a few weeks ago. Ellen Worcester, Kathleen Winterling, Shauna Shroyer, and Jennifer Loney have dedicated hours of volunteer time to the cause of ending hunger in our community. It's hard work to organize a city-wide effort and to manage a food pantry, and these women have taken on this task which makes West Linn a more compassionate community.

Countless volunteers spend their time serving on Citizen Advisory Committees for the city of West Linn, and as officers with their neighborhood associations. It reminds us that we're not a city of individuals, but a community of friends and neighbors. We care about one another, and we care about the future of West Linn.

Another group I want to mention today is the Willamette Centennial Committee, who is organizing the 100th anniversary celebration of Willamette's incorporation as a city. They are also examples of friends and neighbors who promote pride in our community.

This group has been selling calendars featuring historic photos of West Linn. It's fun to look at these photos and remember the history of our city. It reminds us that this city was built by hardworking people who cared about their community. The calendar photos show that our city has always been home to the type of person who loves the natural beauty of this area, and the proximity to the river, vistas, mountains, and forests.

Since those photos were taken, we have evolved to a city where home based businesses outnumber traditional storefronts, and our citizens work on the cutting edge of technology, business, science, healthcare, art and public service. Despite these changes, our citizens still conjure up images of natural beauty and scenic views when they reflect on what makes our community unique. Our history defines us, and gives us a backbone. Our community vision respects our past while we prepare for a vibrant future. For it is those that precede us that built the original foundation I'm talking about today.

However, we have had some recent history that has made us want to heed the advice of Oscar Wilde, who once said, 'Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.' This is a challenge - the Willamette Centennial presents a view of history that motivates us to keep dreaming big to make West Linn better, but our more recent history is riddled with mismanagement, which is like a restrictor plate on our forward movement.

Over the past three years, we've worked to solve the problems of our immediate past, and make progress on our short-term goals, so we can continue to look to the future with the same optimism and community spirit as the people featured in the centennial calendar.

Usually during this speech we focus on the city's accomplishments over the past year and our goals for the coming twelve months. This year I don't want to spend time just talking about what we've accomplished, but rather to help everyone understand how what we've done over the past few years creates the building blocks for enhancing the future of this community. We believe it is critical to ensure that the community's investment in our infrastructure is protected and maintained. We take it for granted that when we turn the water faucet, good clean water pours out. Or that when we flush a toilet, the waste is efficiently taken away and treated. Or when we drive to work, the ride is smooth.

However, in many communities, this is not a given. Without continuing to invest in our utilities and our streets, the quality of life we enjoy here will quickly diminish. To that end, we have embarked on plans that will update our water and transportation system plans so that we know how, when and how much investment is needed in these critical utilities.

We have also approved conceptual planning for both Highway 43 and the 10th Street corridor that will help guide our future investments in these critical commercial cores of the city. The parks and surface water plans have been updated in the last year or so. We have also taken the step of initiating a roadway maintenance fee. Our financial ability to fund street maintenance has been reduced tremendously over the years to the point where our Street Fund was operating a deficit. The roadway maintenance fee ensures a steady stream of revenues to protect the $95 million investment we have in our street system.

Last year, recognizing that parks were among the most important asset we have as a community we took the unprecedented step of approving a park utility fee to help preserve the park system for our enjoyment and for those of future generations. We operate on the assumption that deferred maintenance is not 'free money.' As you can see, we are conducting a thorough assessment of the current state of that foundation, building block by block, determining the repairs necessary and the resources needed to maintain the foundation in to future years….the next century, if you will.

It is a methodical process, but we intend to move ahead just as the old Willamettites did a century ago. Another critical concern of ours has been to ensure that development in West Linn enhances the community and is sustainable. Although the city has only grown by an average of one percent per year during this decade, we want to make sure that our neighborhoods and business community have the opportunity to help chart the course of future development in West Linn.

One other critical component of land use planning is to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our natural resources. We have already approved regulations to protect stream corridors and other waterways. We are also looking at more extensive restrictions along the Willamette and Tualatin Rivers.

Although there is much to be done in maintaining our infrastructure and preserving our outstanding quality of life here in West Linn, none of it is possible unless we have sustainable financial resources for the city. When this council took office in January 2005 we had no idea just how bad the finances were for the city. Here's what we now know:

The city had not completed audits for two years. In the next few months we will be completely caught-up on the audits. However, we have also learned that in the early part of this decade, the city routinely violated state budget law by allowing numerous funds to go into debt. This has left the city even more cash strapped than we had anticipated. Water rates were not raised for several years, reducing debt service ability on our water maintenance bonds, nearly causing the city to default on the bonds. Water rates are now determined by an outside consultant and the water fund on a stable footing, although not able to pay for much needed maintenance. Three separate cases of theft have been uncovered totaling over $1.5 million. The city's financial systems were out of date and staff had been inadequately trained making it nearly impossible for city management or the city council to receive satisfactory and timely information about our situation.

In the finance department, duties have been segregated and two sets of eyes see critical documents at a higher level. Utility billing has gone monthly and collections and customer service has improved as a result. New technology has been introduced to enable employees to follow best accounting practices and streamline workflow. The introduction of purchasing cards has improved accountability and reduced the number of checks. The changes in this area are too numerous to go into here, but let me just say that the goal has been to improve accuracy, efficiency, and transparency.

Previously, the city budget was so complicated and unwieldy that the budget committee met nine times in 2005 just to approve the budget. This past year the budget committee met only three times to unanimously approve a budget that has since been awarded the Government Financial Officers Association award for excellence in municipal budgeting. City staff has produced the first ever five year financial forecast for their use in preparing the budget for the 2008-09 city budget. The five year forecast has been a top priority for this council and we are delighted to have moved to this level of financial planning.

President Lincoln said: 'You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.' We also know that our generation will be held accountable not just by those who live in this community now, but by the legacy we leave behind for our children and their children. That is why the steps we take today in this community - whether that be protecting our infrastructure; protecting the natural environment, or appropriately marshalling all of our resources - must be viewed from the perspective of our community 20 or 30 years from now.

And, I am confident that our steps today are making for a better community tomorrow.

- Norm King