Monday, May 9, 2011

War on the Poor Escalates--City Ordinance Would Add Restrictions to Burn Barrels (There is a New Burn Fee Too!)

[Edited May 10, 2011]
Note--According to the Council Meeting Agenda, Council will consider a possible second reading of the new burning ordinance on Tuesday, May 10, in City Hall at 7 pm. A possible second reading might not be true--they may do both a second and a third reading and pass the ordinance.

New Note: May 10, 2011.

I Watched the video of the meeting tonight--they are taking another look. They say they are concerned that a few issues may have come up, and that they they are concerned that they might be restricting open burning like barbeques, recreational burning, and religious ceremonies, so they are going to redo it. Note that they have no concern for the poor and low income people.The issue, and the new ordinance, will be addressed at the next Council meeting.

Listening to the Council, led by Councilor Calder (on this issue), discuss burn barrels and a new burning ordinance at the April 26 meeting, one might have gotten the impression that burning, especially in burn barrels, is creating an air quality emergency, while requiring a huge drain of Fire Department resources for investigating complaints.

In my view, the ordinance is a solution in search of a problem and a heavy-handed regulation that treats us all like children. It is a form of collective punishment that like my old second grade teacher, would make the whole class stay after school for the transgressions of a few. Of four immediately adjacent neighbors (across, behind, or next door), all burn, either open, with burn barrels, or both, except one. The one that doesn't, a life-long County resident, has no problem with the long-standing practice. At least one (perhaps two), didn't know about the change for burn barrels until I spoke with him 3 days before the May 10th meeting. Similar situations exist throughout our fair city of less than ten thousand people. I don't currently use a burn barrel, although I would like to in the future, and I do burn yard debris.

The ordinance, in restricting the time of burning to between the hours of 7AM and 4 PM (so that working people will be less able to use them, as pointed out to Council by Jim Silsby at the April 26th meeting), by restricting the use of burn barrels to the incineration of paper only, and by restricting the space needed to "15 feet from any combustibles (buildings, vehicles, fences, etc.) and property lines," will make the primary uses of burn barrels illegal for many residents, who may not be able to comply with the seemingly unreasonable content restrictions and the space needed for open pile burning.

Concerning air quality, Councilor Calder stated it was a "quality of life Issue." She stated a citizen with "breathing issues" came in, apparently to her upscale shop on Main Street, and complained about burning, while telling her that a fee of $180.00 a year would be appropriate because that is what it would cost a residence for garbage pick-up.

Is Air Quality really a Concern?

That was my question, so I asked the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) what our air quality has been over the last 5 years (2006 to 2010). Their records indicate the following:

In 2006 there were 329 Good days, 25 Moderate days, 0 UFSG (US EPA Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), and 0 Unhealthy days.

In 2007 there were 324 Good days, 39 Moderate days, 0 UFSG (US EPA Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), and 0 Unhealthy days.

In 2008 there were 331 Good days, 34 Moderate days, 1 UFSG (US EPA Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), and 0 Unhealthy days.

In 2009 there were 336 Good days, 25 Moderate days, 0 UFSG (US EPA Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), and 0 Unhealthy days.

In 2010 there were 345 Good days, 11 Moderate days, 0 UFSG (US EPA Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), and 0 Unhealthy days.

So in fact, last year, 2010, was our best air quality year for the five your period. It has been getting better since the 1980s actually.

There is no doubt that there may be some transient and very short-lived concerns about smoke when someone burns yard debris, especially if no one has taken the time to inform them about how to do it properly (no wet leaf piles, air intake vents at bottom of burn barrel, etc.). If it is done properly, the concerns should be minimal, much less than what is experienced from, or while driving through a Forest Service controlled burn, or as experienced when driving by the city homes the Fire Department occasionally lights up for training exercises, where the smoke is intense and the smell lingers for days (as they did a week ago or so). Less problematic for many than when someone burns the willows and weeds in an irrigation ditch, in or outside of the city. Less problematic for many in fact than the noise produced by the constant rumble, horns and delays caused by the ever present trains or the early morning high-pitched buzz of planes flying low over the city.

Councilor Calder: "it's about time!"

While some of Ms. Calder's clientele, those so very special connoisseurs with the money to purchase the fine wines and cheeses, "organic" produce, fancy gadgetry, and other high-priced items (I and many of my neighbors can't afford to shop there), may object to the long established practice of burning in our small economically divided town, burning is often practiced among lower income people who depend upon it because they can't afford garbage service. Many who can afford garbage service burn too. In my mind, there is more to it than the judgements of the well heeled in balancing the alleged good versus the alleged bad. She and the rest of the Council ignore the importance of the fact that 650 burn permits were issued last year, which likely understates the number of residences who burn yard debris, limbs and paper every year. She did report the anecdotal number of 100 complaints to her, and another 100 phantom complaints to the city administration, to add to the 100 after the fact, and 40 active burning complaints cited by Fire Chief Price, which she admitted might be all the same (100 or so) people), but even her anecdotal numbers still show the users of the long established practice of burning far out numbering those who complain. [This whole episode, along with the Property Maintenance Ordinance, reminds me of the folks in a place I once lived, who moved into new tract houses near a dairy, and immediately began complaining about the smell, as if it was something new, abnormal and obnoxious--ultimately driving out the dairy.]

Baker City Fire Chief Jim Price

I did ask Fire Chief Price to document the equipment, time and money involved in the 40 "active" (they went down to take a look) complaints he said they received for illegal burning. Concerning the documentation, I simply said "I would like to be able to see any documentation you might have." The reason I asked is because the Council didn't, and it seemed to me that if the city is going to start restricting burning, and charging for burn permits, that they ought to look into the reality of his claims. Staff has distorted the truth before, as you probably know. In his response to my request, he said he would have the documentation on Monday, but he did not say he was charging me for it. On Monday, after he got the documentation, he told me he would charge me $59,50 for the information, which I cannot afford to pay. Seems like someone ought to bring that information up in a spreadsheet or list of individual reports in about ten minutes.

In contrast to Chief Price's response, Police Chief Lohner responded to a request for information on property maintenance cases without asking for money. He had the info on property maintenance available in spread sheet form, except for some details that he referred me to the Sheriff's department for. I'm perfectly willing to pay for the 25 cents a copy, but Chief Lohner provided quite a bit of information on one sheet without cost.

[Aside: My main concern about the response to asking for the information is that there was no discussion of any charges in the Fire Chief's initial response about getting the information. For example, when I ask the city for a CD/DVD they tell me what it will cost up front. If I ask Circuit Court for a copy of a record, they tell me I have to pay $0.25 a copy with no labor charge. I didn't feel like I was making a more formal public records request as cost has not been a major concern in any other requests for information, and Chief Price did not indicate that it would be a time consuming problem for him and costly for me. If I thought he was going to charge a large amount of money, I would have made a formal request with all the appropriate language about waivers for the public interest, limits on cost before proceeding, etc.

One has to wonder whether the fire department is keeping any of their call info on spreadsheets/databases.  You'd think that might be the minimum standard in our advanced, historic "fair city."]

Will the ordinance serve the goals sought by its proponents to restrict burning of plastics and other obnoxious or toxic materials?

While the ordinance may bring the city mostly undeserved additional revenue, it will make it harder for truly low income people to get rid of yard debris, without providing people-friendly options. Many do have wood stoves and fire places that can, do and will serve as incinerators for some of these materials. If catalytic and more efficient wood stoves are then used for the purpose, it will reduce the efficiency of the stoves and result in even more smoke and particulate pollution in Baker City. Think--Which chimney is that burning plastic odor coming from, anyway?

"People-Friendly" Solutions to getting rid of the waste (Are there better alternatives than criminalizing the unfortunate?):

I discussed some of these options with City Manager Kee back in late April.

Ask the monopoly private garbage pick-up business, Baker Sanitary (I have recently received a rumor that Baker Sanitary is selling the business to another, probably larger, garbage business [think Waste Management type corporate conglomerate?], or whoever they may be, to provide containers more appropriate for the amount of garbage produced at the residence. Many cities provide a smaller container for those residences with one or few individuals, at an appropriately reduced cost. I once brought this up to the owner of Baker Sanitary at a Council meeting, but it didn't fly with him.

Manager Kee suggested that another solution on the above theme would be to provide bi-monthly pick-up, instead of weekly, to reduce cost to the resident. I would think in the case of singles or in some cases couples with no children at home, that once a month pick-up would be enough. As a single low income person, I produce about a cubic foot of garbage (or less) per week that I can't otherwise legally get rid of through recycling or burning (and I don't always burn what I could), but your mileage will vary due to consumption patterns and other variables. I often see larger families with over-flowing garbage receptacles every week. It seems clear that the costs to dispose of their garbage should be more than those producing little garbage, unless of course, you think that those producing little garbage should subsidize those the produce a lot.

Encourage people, like neighbors, to share a percentage of the cost in maintaining a single garbage container.

Encourage, as a public service, the local monopoly garbage business to take in yard waste for free for a few weeks in the spring and fall, instead of just restricting free yard debris dumping to only those those with accounts.

Encourage use of leaves and grass clippings for mulch and compost.

Instead of banning the most popular use of burn barrels--burning of yard debris and limbs--educate residents on proper burning techniques and construction of air intake openings on burn barrels so that combustion of materials can take place more completely and efficiently without causing smoke.

Urge compliance with current laws by pointing out the wonderful opportunity to recycle plastics and other toxic materials at Baker Sanitary's great recycling facility on Campbell Street. If police of neighbors smell burning plastic in the neighborhoods, remind the offenders of the law and the harm it does, as well as the availability of the recycling facility. If the practice continues, cite them.

Does Councilor Calder have different standards for the business related proposed liquor license fee and the proposed burn permit fee?

Councilor Calder on liquor license fee at April 26 Council Meeting:

Jeanie Dexter, Finance Director, explained that there used to be a $10.00 city liquor license renewal fee before it was removed four years ago at the request of Council.

Councilor Calder responded that "four years ago, when we removed that renewal fee, it was because there was no real work to the city for that renewal fee" because the Chief's work is done during the OLCC [Oregon Liquor Control Commission]license renewal process.

Finance Director Dexter, in response to that point, noted that "there is quite a bit of work . . . involved in patrol obviously with some of those businesses that have those liquor licenses, obviously not all of them. . . ." [Alcohol related under the influence incidents, fighting, disturbances and accidents, both at a bar and afterwards, sometimes at home as in domestic violence and violation of restraining orders, or on the way home like DUII. There may be no record tying the seller of alcohol to the subsequent incidents. While some bars may selectively cut-off certain individuals for their own reasons, many serve alcohol to others beyond the point of slight inebriety.]

Councilor Calder responded that "I think everything that has come to Council as needing attention, has been related, I mean what we've heard about, has been related to the gaming license facilities, … there is no role in a business license renewal with OLCC . . .You have to show that you have your multi-million dollar worth of liability insurance [ Wildly overstated. OLCC website says that for brew pubs and On-Premises Commercial Licenses "applicants must obtain and maintain liquor liability insurance in the minimum amount of $300,000," not multi-million dollar amounts of liability insurance. Chris.] Calder goes on-. . . it requires nothing from the city so to charge is strictly revenue generating. There is nothing in the act of renewing a license that generates a cost to the city." [Emphasis added. I do recall previous council meetings regarding problems at establishments like Stockman's and others.]

City Manager Kee responded that "there is work that we put into these renewals. . .because they have to check to make sure whether any laws have been broken."

Chief Lohner indicated that while there may not be much work associated with approving OLCC licenses for businesses unless there is something abnormal "but throughout the year, obviously, if there are issues that goes on, I discuss that with OLCC, so there is an ongoing through the year. . . ."

It seems clear that businesses that sell liquor are associated with post license renewal police work.

How does Councilor Calder see the burn permit fee issue?

Councilor Calder's Different Standard on Burn Permit Fees

As pointed out by Baker City resident Jim Silsby at the April 24 meeting, issuing a permit takes about 5 minutes, about the same for dog licenses. Chief Lohner indicated that renewal of liquor licenses may take as little as ten minutes if there are no past issues to consider, but more time if there are.

Note that Councilor Calder also misrepresents number of cities that allow burning and is no longer trying to tie a fee, in this case the brand new $25.00 burn permit fee, to just the cost of issuing the permit, or, in fact, to any cost actually related to those costs. She is not even concerned apparently with the cost of issuance in this case, as she was with the liquor license fee. That is likely due to the fact that she has wanted to get rid of burn barrels for over a decade and seems to prefer limiting costs for business owners, a class of which she is a prominent member, but has little real concern for those who need a burn permit.

Is the User Fee Approach to Fees (Taxes) Always Appropriate?

Councilor Bonebrake: Fees Should be Related to Cost of Service

Councilor Bonebrake suggests we should operate on a more business-like model that reflects the cost of doing business with fees tied to the cost of service.

When Councilor Bonebrake, a founder of the Baker County Library, and also (earlier in the meeting when talking about burn permit fees) City Manager Kee, suggest that fees should be based on work generated and cost of service, does that mean that we should also reduce property taxes for education for those that have no children? Should we also quit charging sidewalk fees to those residents who have no sidewalks, don't want them, won't get them, and etc.? Will they deduct a portion of property taxes going to the airport for those who don't and won't be able to use the airport? Shall we renegotiate the incredibly generous lease on the old Carnegie Library used by the "Arts" aficionados? How about financing the library solely on user fees instead of a levy? Where does it end?


Baker City Budget 2011-2012:
Personal Services (i.e., employee costs) represents over 71% of the total appropriations in the General Fund.

Baker City Budget 2010-2011:
Personal Services (i.e., employee costs) also represents over 71% of the total appropriations in the General Fund.

Baker City Budget 2009-2010:
Personal Services (i.e., employee costs) represents over 63% of the total appropriations in the General Fund.

Wow, >71%. No wonder we have no money for basic infrastructure and the city wants to find more revenue through fees

New 2011-2012 fee Schedule is here.

More video clips from the meeting:

Councilor Coles on New Baker City Fees and Budget Process

Councilor Roger Coles talks about potential problems associated with raising current, and creating new, city fees prior to allowing the Budget Committee, composed of the Council, and an equal number of informed citizens, to assess all budget issues first.

He explains that raising various fees for residents in the recessionary economic environment, especially for seniors who haven't seen any cost of living raise [Social Security has not had a cost-of-living increase for two straight years], when we face more important costly increases for basic services, like sewer and water, is counter-productive "nickel & diming the public" before the budget process has started.

A friend offered the thought that all the hoopla over the new burning ordinance, and the Property Maintenance Ordinance serves as a huge diversion from the pressing, real and basic infrastructure problems that we face. [Gosh, aren't you just giddy about the fact that we were busy persecuting the poor and rejecting system development charges while Baker City's infrastructure crumbled?]

(Council ultimately set the fees without allowing the citizen input from the Budget Committee deliberations.)

Perhaps more later.
The entire April Council Meeting can be downloaded at:


Beverly Calder said...

I certainly see no reason for your snide comments about my business nor my customers. I have created jobs in a small community, I sell healthy foods for LESS than you'll find the same item in a chain grocer and I volunteer my time rather than snipe about what I disagree with from behind a keyboard. Your judgemental comments about my "upscale" business are unfounded and simply untrue. I have always tried to make myself available to anyone who feels unheard and YOU KNOW THAT as well as anyone.

Anonymous said...

Are wood stoves next? How many councilors have wood stoves?

Ms. Calder's hypocrisy is astounding; she may make herself available (hard not to do when you own a business in town), but she never listens. Instead, she dismisses every opinion contrary to her own. And in typical fashion, she criticizes your "snide" (but true) statement of fact, accuses you of "sniping" from behind a keyboard, and then doesn't address any of the real ISSUES you described in your post. She simply knows better than you, Chris.

I can buy many of the same "healthy" products she sells elsewhere for much less. I used to shop at Bella because Ms. Calder employs locals, adds customer service more than most, and sells quality products, but her arrogance is revealed when I try to talk about city government and policy -- frankly I feel like I've banging my head against the wall for years now.

I'd go back to Bella if Ms. Calder decided to be content just running her business instead of deciding and legislating how I can (or should) live my life. That goes for her colleagues, too.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the Herald reads your blog, Chris! Wonder whether councilors have read their recent editorial about burn permit fees:

Will they re-evaluate their draconian ways? Or continue imposing their elitist values upon us?