Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Travelogue, et cetera - Of Apples and Oranges, Peaches, Donuts, Caves, and Kindness

To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.

- Abraham Lincoln, Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois - February 11, 1861

It's been a varied and busy last month or so. This has been more interesting than usual because of all the places we've been over that time frame.

We had the 9-year-old son of Leslie's best friend with us for a week in July. We went bicycling in North Park and swimming at the Sewickley Community Center - activities that were simple, low cost, and a lot of fun.

Penns Cave Hotel
The old hotel at Penn's Cave, Centre Hall, Pa.

We then took Aaron home to New York, and on the way experienced Penn's Cave in rural Centre County. Aside from the cave itself, which is intensely interesting, the wildlife park, original 19th century hotel, and meticulously maintained grounds were also impressive. The money and time for this visit were well spent.

On the way back, Leslie and I enjoyed breakfast at a favorite diner, and then spent some time at an outlet mall in Tannersville, Pa., which is about 10 miles from Ross Township in Monroe County. This was the scene of a shooting at a municipal meeting on August 5 that left three dead and several wounded. This included the shooter, who sought revenge for losing his property to condemnation, the culmination of a local dispute that reportedly lasted over 20 years.

This incident generated some discussion locally about security at municipal buildings, including here in Leetsdale. Borough council seemed concerned primarily with day-to-day access to borough offices, which while a valid concern didn't seem to me to pose the greatest overall threat.

LeetsdaleBoroBldg Exterior
Leetsdale Borough Building - Council Chambers as seen from Beaver Street. Credit - Google Maps

As the attached photos illustrate, the entire council chamber is both proximal and visible to anyone walking or driving by on Beaver Street. I'm wondering how something like that would be viewed by someone doing a professional threat assessment, and what their recommendations might be. Consider that the Monroe County suspect began his rampage by shooting through the walls.

Interior of Leetsdale Council Chambers. Council and other officials sit facing the exterior windows.
Credit - Sewickley Patch

Prior to this, Leetsdale also made news for proceeding to advertise for the hiring of a Borough Manager, which on the surface runs counter to what the majority of council seemed to advocate when they were elected in 2011, and also when they summarily eliminated the position upon taking office in January 2012.

I congratulate Leetsdale Council for apparently recognizing the need for day-to-day, professional municipal management, and acting in a responsible way to fill the position. I say 'responsible' because they are engaging independent, professional assistance to conduct the recruitment.

At the end of July we were once again on the road, this time back to Colorado for the first time in over 2 years. While we spent a good amount of time there visiting with my son, the trip wasn't long enough, especially in relationship to other things we did along the way. While they didn't take an extraordinary amount of time (and yet were very worthwhile), they did eat into our travel goals to the point that it took a good couple of days to recover after we got back - between work shifts, that is.

Both before our departure and after our return, the topic of property tax reassessment appeared in the news again. First, the Tribune-Review reported on July 30 that Allegheny County was returning to a base-year system of doing tax assessments, perhaps headed down the same road that got them sued several years ago. Then this past Wednesday, the Trib reported on Washington County's plans to abide by a court order to re-assess...after 32 years.

The first Trib story pointed out a glaring observation about the archaic nature of taxation and governance in Pennsylvania - “There's no state law that requires periodic reassessments. Pennsylvania is one of a handful in the country that don't.

I resist making comparisons between Pennsylvania and Colorado - the differences in governance are too stark - but apples to oranges or not, it's gotta be said:

Colorado counties re-assess all property every odd-numbered year, as required by state law. Over the 10-plus years that I have owned property there, I've seen my assessed valuation, and along with it my taxes, fluctuate with the condition of the market and the economy over that time frame.

With the near-collapse of the housing market in 2008 came a significant reduction in the market value of the property, and a corresponding reduction in the tax rate after the 2009 reassessment. Essential government services were maintained, but a lot of the fat was cut out of municipal budgets, some layoffs occurred, and some necessary hiring and procurement was pushed back.

Government expanded and contracted with the times and the economy - what a concept. Admittedly though, a good many governments in Colorado don't have unionized employees. More evidence of the need for effective day-to-day management of municipal operations, including budgets and financial planning, in response to these factors.

This doesn't mean that a full-time manager is a guarantee that all will go smoothly. The Leetsdale manager will likely serve at the pleasure of the governing board of elected officials, as most other appointed municipal managers do.

When some of those elected officials engage in potentially questionable activities on their own, it may hinder the ability of a manager or administrator to do their job effectively. This was most recently illustrated by media reports of private meetings by the Cecil Township Supervisors with Range Resources, and by Moon Township Supervisors with Robert Morris University.

So we'll see how things pan out in Leetsdale. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Colorado and Pennsylvania do share a lot of common ground - big energy continues to loom as a threat to rural ways of life, including water, traffic, and development issues. My former next door neighbor, an energy worker and part-time writer, recently chronicled some of the more subtle, but no less significant, impacts of fracking on the human condition. His column made its way into the New York Times.

Edward "The Birdman" Gillman makes his rounds through Downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, as he has for nearly 30 years.

Between hiking and a short trip to an excellent car museum, we saw a sign of hope and kindness while walking to dinner Downtown. One of the city's most eccentric, resilient citizens, whom I wrote about in 2010, was still actively plying his self-appointed trade.

Ball Fruit
Ball Fruit Stand, Palisade, Colorado

We found kindness in the eyes and smile of the woman at the family-owned bakery a few blocks from the house. The place has been in business for over 65 years, and I'm betting that the decor has hardly changed. The smells coming from inside the place while on a late night walk together was a harbinger of the genuine good will we found there the next day.

We found the same kindness from a Colorado woman welcoming us to her family fruit stand with a ripe peach for each of us. Leslie thought it particularly touching that she referred to us as a married couple - something that is an unfortunate rarity in some circles.

 Gage Park Carousel, Topeka, Kansas

More good will came from the staff manning an antique carousel in a city park in Topeka, Kansas. The lady there took the time to speak with us about the carousel and its restored original wooden horses (which Leslie loves), and let me take a closer look at the working Wurlitzer Band Organ. We got to ride two other carousels on the trip - one in Abilene and another at an old amusement park outside of Denver.

We'll probably go back to Abilene for the preserved old west buildings, tourist railroad, and the Eisenhower Library, but also for the pleasant dispositions of the inhabitants. All except for the mosquitoes - they were something else entirely.

Dana Thomas
Dana-Thomas House, Springfield, Illinois - Built 1902

Just before our (literal) sprint home, we spent part of a day exploring some of the treasures of Springfield, Illinois. These included the home and tomb of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the finest examples of the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

We were able to see most of these while walking through the Downtown area. It was on the way back to our car, not far from the State Capitol building, that a young woman walking in the opposite direction looked at us and gave us one of the best memories of the entire trip.

She said, "You make a cute couple".

Sunset Russell KS
Near Russell, Kansas.
Have a great week ahead.