Ashland: This is no time to fiddle

by Shaun MoranWednesday, April 15th 2020

As the coronavirus strengthens its grip on Southern Oregon, most Ashland businesses, restaurants, hotels and B&Bs remain shut. A huge percentage of Ashlanders are now unemployed or working on a reduced schedule and salary. Many are struggling to make a living and wonder what our town will be like once this ordeal is finally over. Citizens are uneasy so they have looked to our elected officials for reassurance, stability and hope. Certainly, our mayor and City Council will have a plan that will put at ease our concerns about the future.

At a council study meeting three weeks into this crisis, the city said yes it has a plan — just not yet. By the next City Council session, the last few weeks of April, the plan will be ready. Five weeks from the start of this crisis, we will all be hoping for the best. At least by then we will know what other towns have already done.

Considering our city is losing at least $20,000 a day in revenues which is essential to support our bloated city government, it’s incredible that our elected officials haven’t lost their willingness to spend our ever-growing taxes with unabashed ease.

To address the “State of Emergency in Ashland,” our mayor and council decided on a few “crucial” things:

  • Push forward with a new $8.2 million tax bond to retrofit and rehab City Hall despite not having an estimate for the actual cost.
  • Spend $146,000 on a Phase 1 Waste Water Treatment Plant system upgrade. Our outgoing public works director who doesn’t live in town said, “it wasn’t that much.”
  • Spend up to $150,000 a year on a financial consultant to advise the mayor and council. Too bad they ignored the free advice from citizens on the budget committee to rein in spending.
  • Potentially hire a new finance director, public works director and city administrator despite this time of unprecedented economic uncertainty. These new employees will cost taxpayers more than $600,000 a year. Ashland is so manager to-pheavy, it’s a miracle City Hall doesn’t tilt like the Tower of Pisa.
  • Not furlough or reduce salary or benefits for any of the 268 city staff since staff wants to “keep the service level high.” Of course, some services are essential, but non-essential services and staff need to be curtailed. We simply have too many staff for a city our size — in fact, three times the state average.
  • Committed that the city will not only keep people employed but honor their planned raises and cost-of-living increases this coming year.

From Oregon’s largest cities to its smallest, steps are being taken to address government response to problems now facing families and businesses.

Portland has taken necessary steps to conserve cash, rein in spending and minimize costs by laying off 12% of its staff. Our elected officials have responded by ratcheting up spending and committing to not impact city staff in any way. They have decided that it’s the citizens of this town and our business community who will have to make the ultimate, costly sacrifice.

Seaside last week approved its Tourism Relief Program, offering $1.25 million in emergency funds for lodging properties, businesses and nonprofits, as well as the city’s water customers. They are waiving the transient occupancy tax for hotels. But, while Rome burns, Ashland fiddles, ignoring suggestions to provide assistance to the city’s once-thriving, but now on life support, restaurants, hotels and shops, even telling downtown businesses that they simply expect some won’t survive.

Years of wasteful and excessive spending by our elected officials will likely limit their capacity to deliver and implement effective policy. But for starters, we need to move ahead immediately to freeze all non-essential spending, furlough non-essential staff, give residents relief on utility bills, create a rent relief program for shuttered businesses, waive the meals and transient occupancy tax for the next three months and put all capital improvement projects on hold.

Ashlanders, our town is in crisis. Demand that your city leaders take the responsible actions that other cities are taking.

Shaun Moran is a 2019-2021 Ashland Citizen Budget Committee member.