Ashland still doesn’t have a handle on spending
Mail Tribune Guest Editorial, Shaun Moran
Ashlanders are generous, socially conscious, hardworking and proud of their city. However, many are being forced to move as surging taxes, utility bills, surcharges and fees have made Ashland just too expensive for them.
The city budget has nearly doubled over the past 10 years. Water rates are up over 160%. Capital improvement project costs routinely exceed budget and no one is ever held accountable. Forgivable loans are approved to bail out indebted city funds. The property tax rate is maxed out to the state limit and now, with no other funding options left, our elected officials are trying to justify the largest city bond offering ever in Ashland.
The purpose of this new $8.2 million tax bond is to fix City Hall and two other city buildings. Yet, back during the 2017-2019 budget process, the mayor and council discretely positioned a transfer of $1.7 million in taxpayer funds. They robbed Peter to pay Paul. Money being saved in the Facilities Fund to ensure the maintenance and repair of existing city buildings was siphoned off to cover day-to-day operational costs in the Central Service Fund. Instead of first identifying things to cut or eliminate, they raided the Facilities Fund to pay administrative and operational costs. Moreover, there was never any intention to repay or restore the funds.
That wasteful mistake has led our leaders to ask taxpayers to fork over more of their hard-earned resources to fund the very repairs for city buildings budgeted for in that 2017-’19 budget. This is simply not the proper use of taxpayer resources. Good governance demands careful stewardship and transparency. Our city government should aspire to these basic tenets. I know I speak for most Ashlanders when I say we deserve better.
Our elected city officials are quick to say the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is 100% of the reason why Ashland is in financial trouble, yet anyone who has been paying attention knows that is simply not the case. They attempt to deflect questions about the budget and runaway spending by saying it’s impossible to compare budgets with other cities because services in Ashland are so different.
The city’s PERS obligation of $6 million a year represents less than 4% of the $153 million annual budget. But, if it were the budget-killer our elected officials claim, why haven’t our elected officials changed the employee benefit plan so city workers begin to contribute to their own retirement? That’s long overdue and consistent with what many city and state employees contribute. More importantly, it would put over $1.2 million each year back into the city’s pocket.
If PERS is such an issue, why does Ashland keep hiring? According to a recent city document, Ashland now has roughly 280 employees which is three times the number of city staff per citizen compared to other Oregon cities. It’s not hard to understand that with every additional hire, PERS costs increase. What is clear is the decision by our elected officials to expand city staff has meant that higher PERS costs are more of a byproduct of decisions made by Ashland city officials than by the state PERS board. It’s wrong for past and present elected city officials to go on hiring sprees, then sit back, do nothing and blame our higher personnel costs on the State of Oregon. Ashlanders know these are just easy excuses for lack of fiscal discipline and oversight.
Not much in Ashland has changed over the past 10 years with respect to the services provided to our citizens, yet livability in our town is under threat. What is clear is that entrenched city bureaucrats, most of whom don’t live in Ashland, a bloated city government and years of bad fiscal stewardship from our elected officials have put affordability and the sustainability of our city at risk.
Instead of upholding their responsibility to be strong fiscal stewards of our money, our elected officials have propagated the myth that citizens want all these services or that right-sizing our budget will jeopardize the level of essential services to our citizens. That is simply not true. The trajectory we’re on can only have disastrous results if not altered. In the upcoming November election, Ashlanders need to decide for themselves what kind of future they want.
Shaun Moran was a member of the 2019-2021 Ashland Citizens Budget Committee.