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Backus pledges change for the better in her first State of the City address
Nancy Backus is Auburn's chief politician.
But please, oh please, don't call her that. Ever.
She greatly prefers wife, mother, soccer mom, friend, confidante, professional business woman, proud product of the Auburn School District, Green River Community College graduate, 10-year member of the Auburn City Council, even first female box boy at the old Piggly Wiggly.
And, perhaps, Auburn's biggest booster.
Thus, in her first State of the City address did Auburn's mayor of 49 days introduce herself to a roomful of business leaders at Emerald Downs.
"I do not like politics and don't like being referred to as a politician," Backus began. "In today's climate, the descriptor suggests a person who engages in politics for their party's benefit or for one's own advantage. I think you'll understand why I do not want to be categorized as such a person."
Her sole intent, she said, is to lead Auburn's government into the 21st century and to get things done, not to follow the quiet dogmas of the past.
"I think Fiorello "Henry" La Guardia, New York (City) Mayor from 1934-1945, stated it best: 'There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.' Pretty simple concept. We just need to get it done."
As Auburn, like other cities, shuffles off the doldrums of a national economy that tanked in 2009, Backus said, it is poised for growth. Just two weeks ago, the City's police force added three officers.
What's more, Backus said, Auburn has a kicking cultural arts scene, from its smoking Bravo Series, Comedy at The Ave, a Downtown Sculpture Gallery, award-winning festivals and concert series, to one of the best municipal golf courses in the area, 28 developed parks, more than 23 miles of trails, almost 247 acres of open space for passive and active recreation and athletic and recreational activities for all ages.
But of course, not everything is skittles and beer.
Two problems concern Auburn's new mayor most: first, that the community's most vulnerable should be safe, fed and have a roof over their heads; and second, finding ways to fill the gaps in funding tied to decisions made at the county, state and federal level, which have reduced or taken money away from the local budget.
"We have a significant number of brothers and sisters in Auburn that are struggling," Backus said. "Some are long term, some have been the victims of a poor economy. Regardless of the reason, if there are children without food, elderly without homes, or veterans unable to receive services, it is unacceptable. It is not a crime to be poor. I don't have all the answers to this problem, but I do know that there are angels in our midst that are answering the call, like the Auburn Food Bank, Auburn Youth Resources, Valley Cities, and Pregnancy Aid."
As for filling the funding gaps, Backus noted, since 1996 the City's budget has taken collective hits of $51 million to its bow, tied to legislative or initiative action. Among the villains: the Streamlined Sales Tax; the repealing of the motor vehicle excise tax; property tax limitations; and the loss of the liquor sales excise tax.
Whether the people involved realized it beforehand or not, Backus said, when state and federal governments changed the rules or voters approved certain initiatives, the result was everywhere and always the same: less money equals fewer services.
Locally, Auburn's street and transportation system took the biggest hits.
"This is the most expensive service that your government provides," Backus said of the transportation system. "This ... is a problem for which no one person has a solution. I can stand here and explain the economics of your local government. I can try and make a plea that it's the cost of doing business. There are a lot of things I could say, but it would not solve the problem. It's always about choices – if we spend money on "A" then we have to spend less on "B" – and each choice has a benefit and a consequence. My point is that there are no easy answers. And anyone that tells you that it is easy probably lies about other things, too," Backus said.
Backus promised to deliver three things to the City's residents to provide them with the kind of services their local government owes them.
The first, she said, is that her administration will provide more transparency through technology
"We have made a start on this, and I am seeking ways to do more. Your IT department has continued to add services to what call our virtual city hall. Tools that can help you do your business with your city more conveniently for you and more efficiently for us. We are also looking at more ways to help citizens find information. I am aware that finding data can be very difficult and we, as your government, should decrease that difficulty as much we can. It's your information, and you deserve to have access to it without bureaucracy," Backus said.
Second, Backus said, the City means to increase citizen engagement through what she called "non-traditional means."
"We know that technology can be the great equalizer. We can create or use more innovative, online citizen engagement tools, and we can continue to find ways to increase access to your local government so that we can hear your voice. I believe a quick response is critical, even if it's simply 'I'll get back to you.' And then, we must get back to you," Backus said.
Along these lines, Backus said, the City recently seated its first Auburn Junior City Council to provide more youth feedback to its leaders. The City, Backus said, will continue to be out in neighborhoods talking to people where they are.
And last, she said, the City under her leadership will break down traditional ways government does business.
"We will be a disrupter of the status quo," she said.
"...Some tried to characterize me as one of the good ol' boys" during my campaign — I'm not old," Backus said, drawing laughter. "We have recently made some changes to our structure, as I mentioned before. We have merged our planning and public works departments because their functions are so closely related and important to our upcoming development. We wanted to make sure that this function is operating at its absolute best, and I can tell you that, so far, they are.
"We need to hear what the citizen's priorities are, not tell them what our priorities are; we will require that City staff stop defending when we are asked a question. Instead, let's ask the citizen what would they do. We will drop the defensiveness and stop fighting and never allow the first answer to be no. We have decided that the way we have historically done business is dead. We will continue to develop more public-private partnerships. Auburn has some exciting opportunities ahead. We have the attention of those looking to locate their business in our city, as well as those looking to move their families here. The next few years will bring much change to our downtown, as well as to other areas within the city.
"Will there be some growing pains? Absolutely. Auburn is over 120 years old, and the one constant during that time has been change. It is imperative, however, that as we are excited with new development, we must never forget the existing businesses. I have been using the phrase, "dance with the one that brought you." Our businesses helped us through the difficult times and deserve some of our focus. We are a diverse community. Our focus of "One Auburn" is set to celebrate not only our similarities but our differences. We will continue to find opportunities to bring people together and learn from each other. We are always going to be better together than trying to make it on our own."