Citizens on the Budget Committee — See Clearly to Solutions to Ashland’s Budget Issues

 

  • Building a Better Budget
    By Addie Greene, Chronicle Reporter
         Budget Committee Chair David Runkel and Vice Chair Garrett Furuichi addressed the Mountain
    Meadows Democrats Thursday evening at the retirement community. Councilman Dennis
    Slattery attended to give the city’s point of view.
         Runkel gave a brief introduction to state budget law, telling his audience that Oregon
    requires all municipalities to have a citizens’ budget committee comprised of city council
    members and the same number of citizen members. Citizen members are appointed by the mayor
    and serve staggered four-year terms.
         The primary purpose of the committee is to “promote efficiency and economy in the use
    of public funds,” he said, “but citizen members have no control.”
         Ashland is to hold nine budget meetings open to the public this year, the off-year in the
    biennial budget cycle (2017-2019) but has held only one, on March 19. At that forum Public
    Works Director Paula Brown was given 10 minutes to discuss $64 million in capital projects.
    When she ran out of time, Mayor John Stromberg stopped the clock, allowing her to finish.
         Brown’s presentation was followed by that of Mark Welch, director of Finance and
    Administrative Services, who said “There will be challenges in the general fund—we’re still
    showing a $2.5-million deficit going forward.”
         Also at that forum, consultant Chris Jung demonstrated OpenGov, which uses the cloud
    to store city data. It is available at AshlandOr.OpenGov.com.
         Runkel went on to describe the qualifications of the committee’s citizen members, most
    of whom have backgrounds in finance or business. He introduced Furuichi by saying, “He knows
    more about state budget law than anybody else in Ashland.”
         Furuichi began his presentation by saying “There is a significant amount of growth
    because the budget is biennial.” He cited a 15.7% increase per year, a 15.93% increase in
    employee costs, and a 10% increase in debt service. He picked a department that has no capital
    projects, to make it easier for the audience to understand the numbers, but his screen shots were
    not large enough for most audience members to see.
         “It is a policy that we have an unappropriated fund balance of 12%,” Furuichi said, “but
    there has been a decline in 2009-2017.” He explained that if city administrators want to spend
    using the unappropriated fund balance they must have a really good reason.
         He cited Oak Knoll Golf Course, whose 2017-2019 budget is $1,163,100, of which
    $848,830 is personnel costs. Use of the golf course is declining, however, with 17,859 rounds
    played in 2015 and 16,619 in 2016. Oak Knoll lost $240,000 in 2017, and cumulative losses
    from 2005-2017 were $1.7 million. The golf course has a 52% cost recovery rate, Furuichi said.
         He urged his audience to “ask those questions” about policy decisions relating to
    programs that are not self-supporting.
         When an audience member asked about the gun club, Slattery said “there is no line item
    for the gun club but it pretty much breaks even.”
         Slattery said he was the only “no” vote when the City Council changed to a biennial
    budget in 2013. “We did put together a better budget process,” he said, “but we need more
    meetings.” “We do need to talk more about how to control our costs,” he added. “We do need
    more collaboration, we do need more time, but we are constrained how we talk about the next
    budget.” What he meant is that 2019-2021 budget estimates cannot be made public until the
    budget is approved.
         Speaking of the budget process, Furuichi said, “Budget meetings are compressed to May.
    We always have four meetings in one month (lasting from 6-11 p.m.). The budget’s complicated
    (345 pages), it’s huge ($286,173,664). We need your help.”
         “We didn’t have enough time,” Runkel said. “We need to get people involved and be
    better prepared. We all want to preserve our city.”
         “How much bigger will the next budget be?” Furuichi asked. “We can’t talk about future
    expenditures.”
         “The future budget is available in the long-range plan,” Slattery countered, but only by
    extrapolation.
         “The elected people make policy,” Slattery said. “The appointed people help them make
    policy.” “We need to figure out about PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) and increase
    transparency,” he added.
         “We need well contested elections,” Slattery continued. And, turning to Runkel and
    Furuichi, he said “We help educate each other. Democracy works best with engaged citizens.”
    The school district set aside $3.3 million to deal with PERS, Slattery said, and advocated
    for the city to do that in 2013 and 2015.
         “A major concern is utility fees and charges,” Furuichi said, and asked the audience to
    consider these issues: Do you think we have an adequate reserve? Is the health care program for
    city employees, and the benefits the city provides, viable? “Fifty-nine per cent of city employees’
    salaries and benefits are greater than $100,000 a year, and 70% live outside the city,” Furuichi
    said. Overtime time costs are restricted to police, fire, and the Electric Department, he said, but it
    was worth noting that Medford has a private ambulance service, and most Ashland Fire and
    Rescue calls are ambulance calls.
         Furuichi noted that there is no carry forward of unappropriated funds for capital projects,
    but these monies must be reappropriated during the next budget cycle.
         Runkel asked the audience to consider these issues: What do we do about our water
    supply? Parks get 50% of property tax revenue; should an audit be made of Parks and Recreation
    programs? In preparing for the 2017-2019 budget, various programs were suggested for cuts, but
    none of these cuts was accepted.
         In the end, Furuichi said, the city should strive for a modified 0-based budget and an
    adequate end fund balances.

 

//inserted by Sharon