Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Volunteer Profile: John Pew

A city is only as good as its people. Each day, many unsung volunteers labor behind the scenes to make American Fork a better place for all of us. Here is the story of one of them.

Of what value is art? Great value, say the people of American Fork. We display paintings, quilts, and photography at Steel Days. We send our children to historic City Hall to learn watercolor, to sing in the choir, to give speeches. We either march in the band or support its fund raisers. Even as adults, we produce musicals and dramas and we populate choirs, bands and even a symphony orchestra.

Few realize the work that goes in behind the scenes to make these programs possible. Today my blog profiles John Pew, the first and founding chair of the Arts Council’s governing board.

Established in 2007, the governing board is comprised of several good men and women, leaders in the arts and business communities, who labor behind the scenes so that when the curtain goes up and the lights go on, the Arts Council has the necessary legal basis to perform.

In its first three years, the board has rolled up its sleeves and produced policy, policies enabling the various arts council programs to operate—policies as mundane as how accompanists or choreographers are compensated, or as legally vital as how content is selected and copyrights are honored.

I asked John about the board’s work and he likened it to that of a business manager, explaining how “incredibly important” this role is in enabling art, how the non-artistic roles on the board are essential to carrying on the work. The symphony director, for example, has enough on his hands with the work of selecting the music, coaching the musicians, and delivering the magic that connects the symphony with its audience. If he must also print the programs and set up the house, fill out the purchase requisitions and face down the finance committee, he will burn out before the symphony ever sees a second season.

Another important focus of the governing board, therefore, is to support the work of Lori England, Arts Council director, and to work with each of the Arts Council programs to make sure they have functioning by-laws, boards, and program managers. “One of the best things we’ve done,” John said, “is to visit with the program managers, try to make them feel appreciated, to feel that somebody from the City is listening and has their back.”

But the focus which motivates the board more than any other is the quest for an arts center. For years, the Arts Council has sought sovereignty over a permanent home that would alleviate concerns for performance, rehearsal and storage space. There’s the Amphitheater at Quail Cove, but it’s only a fair-weather friend. The Alpine School District has been generous with its space, but the Arts Council must yield scheduling priority to numerous school programs.

There have been defeated bonds, and there was the dubious compromise that built a basketball court in the Fitness Center for symphony performances.

The pursuit of an arts center has figured prominently on the governing board’s every agenda, only to be stymied by the City’s various financial predicaments. “We toured arts centers and we met with architectural firms,” John said, “but we couldn’t ever make that vital next step without stronger City finances.”

Nevertheless, John remains convinced that the arts play a vitally important role in American Fork. “The Arts Council provides an outlet for talents, a place for people to perform,” he says, “a means to express themselves.”

In so saying, John draws on his own background, a background that has uniquely prepared him for this service. A fine musician in his own right, John performed the piano concertos of Grieg and Mendelssohn as a high school student and won a place in the piano studio of the famed Reid Nibley at Brigham Young University before choosing a more pragmatic path. He ultimately graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from San Jose State University and took a job with Ariba, Inc., in Sunnyvale, California. He has kept the job in Sunnyvale, to which he telecommutes from his home here in American Fork, and he has likewise kept music, if not for his vocation, then for his avocation.

In 1998 and 2000, while living in California, John directed the orchestra and chorus for the Oakland (LDS) Temple Pageant. In 2002, he accepted the baton of the (Oakland) Temple Hill Symphony Orchestra, then a struggling organization, and built for it a vibrant reputation that attracted great soloists such as Jenny Oaks Baker. After moving to American Fork in 2005, John kept his position with Temple Hill, scheduling rehearsals to coincide with visits to the work place, and treating his American Fork friends to its thrilling rhapsodies during a stop in our amphitheater on a 2010 tour.

“There’s something meaningful, something about performing that’s personal, almost intimate,” John told me, drawing on this experience. “It’s not just like talking to a friend. It’s deep, it’s moving, and very rewarding.”

Then he glowed, just a little, recalling the musician in his orchestra who said, “I would never have had an opportunity to perform this music without you. It’s like a dream come true.”

As 2010 draws to a close, so does John’s term on the governing board. None of us felt we could challenge him when he said it was time to step out of the wings and back into the lights. With the new year, he will also relinquish his position with Temple Hill and will begin a promising season as the conductor of the newly forming Timpanogos Symphony Orchestra, the newest musical voice in the north county.

If you are interested in performing serious classical music, the music of the masters, John tells me he has a place for you. If you prefer listening, he has a place for you, too, in the audience of the inaugural concerts. These will be held on April 8 and 9 at Timberline Middle School and will feature special guest soloist Dr. Jeffrey Shumway, chair of the piano faculty at Brigham Young University, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.

Further information will be coming soon to

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Meters, Impurities, and Water Rates

In light of recent media interest, I feel to say a word about secondary water rates.

In a November 28 editorial, The Daily Herald likened Pleasant Grove's water rates -- which, like American Fork's, are based on lot size rather than water usage -- unto Obamacare. In this conservative territory, these are fighting words.

The problem with rates based on lot size, says the Herald, is that the cost is the same for any given user whether he waters a lot or a little. This hampers conservation efforts and leads in many cases to inequity. The landowner who puts his entire lot into vegetable gardening pays no more for his daily water usage than his next-door neighbor, with the same lot size, whose yard is entirely paved in concrete.

Moreover, it masks the true cost of water and this, says the Herald, revving up for its tirade against Obamacare, is "how government gums things up by trying to hide real costs."

I follow this logic. I am a card-carrying free-market economist, if there is such a card, and I too believe that price should reflect cost and that secondary water rates, therefore, should be based on metered usage.

So here's the problem. Secondary water comes from impure sources, is not treated, and therefore carries impurities that clog meters. Which means that secondary water can't be metered. Not by ordinary meters, anyway. Special meters do exist, but they can't be read by the City's radio meter-reading technology. Or if they can, they are expensive: $250 per meter. Moreover, the technology is still experimental.

When American Fork bonded for secondary irrigation, that $250 multiplied by 7,000 households city-wide would have meant bonding for an additional $1,750,000 -- money which, given the inherent unreliability of the meters, neither the engineering staff nor the city council could justify.

Thus the rates came to be based on lot size rather than usage.

Nevertheless, the engineering staff has been monitoring the progress of meter technology and does have a few of the expensive meters on hand. Complaining residents whose lots are mostly house, or mostly driveway, have been offered meters to enable them to prove lower usage. They, in exchange, have become the City's guinea pigs.

The meters will see their first full year of use in 2011. After that, the City may choose to re-examine the issue.

But at this point in time, I have to say that fairness is only the lesser of the city council's concerns with respect to water rates. The large, looming concern this year is the possibility that revenues will not be sufficient to meet the payments required on the bonds.

With a good portion of the system's revenue model based on impact fees (fees from new construction), and with construction having come to a near stand-still these past three years, the situation is looking bad. If the situation continues, we, like Pleasant Grove, may be forced to raise revenues through other means -- possibly through increased water rates, property taxes, or through issuing more debt.

This concern is occupying the better part of our attention these days, and the council is doing all it can to minimize the impact. We are working to boost economic development. We have steered away from budget increases and are fighting excessive charges from the sewer district. As long as the water bill continues high, we should be doing all we can to keep the tax bill low.