ACES Speaks Out: Ashland’s Financial Heart Has Stopped

The Chronicle Editor doesn’t write these articles that you find on our website. Our editors select the articles to post – there is always an author posted – ACES’ Treasurer is the author of this article.

The financial heart of Ashland has stopped beating. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Southern Oregon University and most of our businesses are closed. COVID-19 would represent a blow to any tourist/college town even under the best of circumstances.

Unfortunately, our city also has pre-existing, underlying conditions: a compromised financial situation and a myopic, unresponsive city leadership team that, with the exception of a couple of prerecorded phone alerts, hasn’t been heard from since the crisis began.

Remarkably, on the same day the Ashland City Council declared a state of emergency due to the virus, members voted to send an $8.2 million bond to the May ballot mostly to rehab City Hall. When faced with an obvious financial tsunami heading our way and the inevitable impact on our citizenry and businesses, this was their priority.

They justify it with a hyperbolic narrative of seismic safety and potential liability and add that this project, according to Councilor Tonya Graham, will represent an economic and symbolic boost to our town.

First, the probability that the Big One will occur in our lifetimes, during working hours and catastrophically damage a structure built on bedrock 100 miles from the fault with mountains in between, pales in comparison with the probability of our city hitting the financial skids by next year.

We have no wiggle room. Ashland’s budget has grown 100% over the past 10 years, versus an inflation rate of 18%, to almost the same size as Medford’s, a city with four times our population. We are maxed out on property taxes, our citizens pay a base fee of $1,200 in taxes and fees per year for electricity and water before any usage, and we have three times the number of employees versus other Oregon cities our size. Our hotel tax went up another percentage point this year to 10%, and we have a meals tax of 5%, which discourages diners from surrounding cities.

There was one significant attempt over the past 10 years to cut expenses — six unfilled positions were eliminated to balance the 2019-’21 budget last June. The mayor has worked tirelessly ever since to reinstate them by proposing a variety of yet new taxes and fees.

And now, Ashland citizens are asked to fork over $8.2 million more to finance a nicer City Hall for its occupants during a pandemic. If the issue was really safety, a seismic retrofit would have already been completed at a cost of $1.4 million per the estimate and recommendation, requested by the city, from Miller Engineering in 2016.

As for the economic boost resulting from the City Hall project, most contractors and workers will come from outside Ashland, and the negative economic effect on downtown businesses, especially around the Plaza during the building period, will be substantial. Ashland doesn’t need to fund a stimulus for builders. We should focus on an aid package for our ailing retail, hotel, service and restaurant businesses.

Finally, this project is indeed symbolic. It symbolizes that during one of the greatest crises in our country, state and city history, the Ashland City Council chose not to push for actions that would benefit its citizens or business community, but rather to promote an overpriced project we can’t afford that benefits the few.

Compare this to Bret Champion, Medford School District superintendent, who recently canceled the purchase of Cobblestone Village to make way for a new middle school because of an expected drop in tax revenue due to COVID-19: “As soon as this hit, and we began to see the effect it was having on the economy, it was clear this was going to have a very dramatic impact. We are a business that relies on taxes and all that goes with it, so a downturn in the economy definitely has impact on us in the long run.”

These are words of wisdom we long to hear from our elected officials in Ashland. Let’s just pray that the city will somehow survive this leadership team until we can vote in a new one in November.

Susan T. Wilson is treasurer of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability.