The 2022 Election – Which Ashland Will Prevail
A Tale of Two Cities
The Tale of Two Cities was a novel written by Charles Dickens about Paris and London in the lead up of the French Revolution.
Now, this is a tale of visions of two Ashlands. We want to assure you right off this is not a story about a revolution in the making. But a story of two differing views of the future of our city by people who want the best for Ashland. Strong views, yes. That’s good.
Voters should have a choice and this year they have it.
A group of candidates for City Council see climate change as the chief concern facing our town above all else. As Councilor Tonya Graham said at a Chamber of Commerce forum just weeks ago, the environment “is the lens through which all decisions must be seen”. The other two candidates in this camp are 1) Bob Kaplan, a strong environmentalist who supports an expensive conversion of Ashland’s natural gas use to all electrical and an environmental score on your home and 2) Eric Hansen, owner of the valley’s major solar panel company who was recruited to run for Council by leaders of the Parks Commission. For shorthand you might call this trio the green ticket.
Graham and Kaplan are so closely aligned they have the same campaign mailing address and treasurer. Kaplan wrote a glowing piece about Graham and helped her when she ran for mayor two years ago just months after he moved to Ashland from Washington, DC.
The second group is also green, but it’s a different green. They recognize the challenges of climate change and are committed to dealing with the dangers it presents but share a belief that City Council actions must also consider the ability of the city, and its citizens, to pay for them. In this group are Joy Fate, Jill Franko and Jim Falkenstein. While they share many ideas, their campaigns are separately run with different mailing addresses, campaign managers and treasurers. They fear the green that disappears from residents’ pocketbooks and wallets to fund a runaway budget. Compared with other Oregon cities, Ashland’s per household city government spending is high, for instance nearly three times higher than Medford’s.
The backdrop for this campaign is a city budget that has increased nearly 100% over the last 12 years and the city’s continuing struggle to balance the general fund budget as required by state law. In the last two fiscal years, this was only accomplished with a non-reoccurring $4.3 million Covid relief grant from the federal government. This year, personnel savings through not filling job vacancies and unidentified departmental savings gave us a match of revenues with expenditures.
The structural deficit as explained by the past two finance directors, however, continues. City expenses are forecast to continue to exceed revenues for the next several years unless additional steps are taken. Eight years ago, an acting city finance director told the Council at the conclusion of that year’s budget debate that Ashland could no longer afford to do everything that everyone wanted. Her plea went unanswered.
In our view, next year’s budget deliberations will confront hurricane type winds. In addition to continuing expenses, where will the dollars be found to pay for the new plan to fill all vacant positions, the 11 percent pay raises negotiated with city workers, the increased PERS retirement costs due to the 25% pullback on Wall Street and across the board increases in the costs of all the things the city buys?
This is to say nothing of the additional projected costs for capital improvement projects (CIP’s). Consider Ashland’s proposed new $40M water treatment plant. Public Works is almost ready to roll. This will mean millions more in debt, which translates into higher and higher utility bills for years to come, especially if current high interest rates persist. If Ashland history serves as a guide, we can also count on a $40M project ending up as a $60M or $70M project (or more). And this is only $40M of a total 20 year $300M CIP budget.
There are two options. One embraced by those combating climate change is to accept all the costs facing the city and raise additional revenues through new levies and increased surcharges, taxes and fees. The other group feels the budget must be cut by 1) prioritizing and rationalizing all the services the city provides and 2) finding ways to save money through outsourcing or regionalizing services, all through the eye of finding ways to deliver essential services at a lower and more affordable cost point.
ACES feels the first approach is simply not sustainable and the city will hit a much more severe fiscal crisis point within the next few years. The 2022 election represents a true turning point. Which Ashland will prevail? The choice is yours.