Critical Issues Facing Ashland
What would make Ashland better? Over the last three Saturdays, focus groups have met in the Washington Federal meeting room to discuss this issue. At stake are four City Council seats and a projected $2.5-million shortfall in the 2017-2019 budget.
One participant described Ashland as “within rural environs, an urban hub.” Another said “It’s a tourism town—without the economic impact of people coming here the city wouldn’t be the same.”
These two descriptions resonated with all three focus groups, with participants over and over saying they love the outdoor activities, along with theater and the arts, available in Ashland.
However, underneath this love of community is the sense that the city’s leaders have betrayed its citizens by “bloating expenses that have funneled off reserves.” “The City Council is not open and transparent,” one participant said. “Governmental decisions must be made in the open,” another added. “We need dialog between elected officials and citizens,” a third said.
Participants cited public art projects, the gun club, and the golf course as areas where city support could be cut. One person complained about the city’s spending $100,000 on the sculpture between the library and the fire station. Another said the gun club has a 30-year lease with the city, paying $1 a year, and has not moved to clean up the some of the lead poisoning Lithia Creek, a matter still in litigation.
“I love the golf course but it’s not managed well,” another said. “It would not be hard to make it lose less money,” and he would be willing to pay more in greens fees to maintain the course and promote it.
“What are the core services we want to keep?” another participant asked. He mentioned zero-based budgeting, which was introduced for the federal government by President Carter in 1977. Simply put, zero-based budgeting subtracts expenses from income until the total “zeroes out.” If the number is negative, some expenses must be cut. In order to do this, the city must prioritize its expenses.
Other issues for participants were affordable housing/workforce housing and a master plan to deal with homelessness. “Finding (hospitality) workers is an issue, with some driving 30 miles for a low-paying job that is not a livable wage,” one participant said. Former City Councilor Carol Voisin said Ashland can’t get grants until the city’s affordable housing trust reaches $2 million or more because of the requirements for many grants. In the meanwhile, it is considering spending much of its funds which seems shortsighted.
Another issue was transportation, with some people calling for better public transportation using either the bus system or an electric trolley line. Others called for bringing Uber or Lyft to Ashland.
One participant complained about the city’s refusal to implement the 10X20 solar power project, which is now law. Ashland’s contract with the Bonneville Power Administration expires in 2024, he said, but the city should be getting 10% of its power from solar by 2020.
Another complained that eight miles of dirt roads within the city are the number one pollutant in the Rogue Valley. Another warned that the 5G cell tower scheduled to go up at SOU in August will damage citizens’ health. The radiation from a cell tower is “like being in a microwave,” she said. One woman said she wants to opt out of having a “smart meter,” which she says is another source of radiation.
Gutting of the senior program by the Parks Department also came in for criticism. “We should expand the senior program to make it a part of every decision made by the city,” this participant said, “and take money away from the compulsion to provide more recreation programs for seniors.”
“Listen to members of the Citizens Budget Committee,” another said.
“We have a strong mayor and a weak administrator structure,” one participant said and advocated that the city charter be changed to allow for a different structure. Others wanted the city to change to a district council system and to roll back automatic step promotions. Almost all participants strongly advocated a balanced city budget.
What services could be cut to balance the budget?
Citizens cited the gun club, the golf course, Ashland Fiber Network, the $3.5-million plan to improve the Daniel Meyer pool, Parks and Recreation spending on consultants and commissions, the railroad master plan, top-heavy management, salaries and benefits, studies—hiring outside consultants to do the work city staff should do, and the proposed $23-million water plant.
Asked to describe their number one gripe against the city, citizens responded: health services for the City Council; that Ashland chose to self-insure for medical; city staff salaries; hostility toward public input by the council and mayor; that the city thinks a $250,000 condo is affordable; that the Chamber of Commerce should pay its own way; the road diet; that the council will tolerate deficit spending; spending (and choices) on public arts; and tolerance of urban sprawl.
What are the critical issues facing Ashland?
Voisin said Garrett Furuichi, vice chair of the Citizens Budget Committee, told her Ashland’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) liability is growing. This is a liability the city is required by Oregon law to pay. In order to meet this expense and, at the same time provide core services such as water, wastewater, and police/fire protection, Ashland must determine how many people use a particular service, evaluate this usage and its cost, and act accordingly to balance the budget.
In the end, one woman summed up what the lack of affordability means for Ashland. “I have two children who grew up in Ashland. They can’t afford to live here.”
At the end of each focus group, Voisin with others conferred with each group to help look for and to encourage persons to run for City Council this fall because we need a change.
The focus groups were sponsored by Former City Councilor, Carol Voisin and other activists in the Ashland Community.