Analysis and Opinion by Dean Silver
One thing really stood out in the responses we received to our candidates’ questionnaires: Bob Kaplan’s ideas about the ballot initiatives and the budget issue. He didn’t come right out and say it directly, but taken together his statements leave no doubt that he believes that the solution to our budget crisis is to allow the Parks Commission to break away from the city and form a separate district, allowing them to levy taxes independently. If you weren’t paying close attention to what he wrote, the implications might have escaped your notice.
Ballot Measure 15-210, Ashland’s Charter:
“I’ll vote no because I don’t think the ballot measure is asking the right question…. The right question is whether Ashland voters want an independent parks district akin to what we had before or if we’d prefer to fold everything into the City’s structure and budget. Let’s have a thorough presentation of the pros and cons of each option and then a clear vote next May.”
Ballot Measure 15-211, Ashland’s Food & Beverage Tax Ordinance:
“I will vote against the measure because I think we need to consider the tax as part of a broader solution to the City’s budget equation, which we know will require deeper structural changes. Like Measure 15-210, I think Measure 15-211 is a distraction that will not do much to address the real problem ahead of us, and I hope for a vote in May 2023 on the real question we need to decide.”
Do you believe the city budget is in trouble:
“The City Council still needs to do its job and take up some of the possible structural changes identified in the budget document or identify other possible alternatives that could bring the projected future expense and revenue curves back together. Some of those options may involve Parks and Recreation, which is a further reason why I think the two ballot measures 15-210 and 15-211 are premature.”
When you add those three statements together, it appears that Bob Kaplan’s solution to the problems of supervision of the Parks and Rec Department AND our budget shortfalls is to create a separate district, thus removing them from any and all oversight of the city government.
This would be the worst possible solution. It could generate more tax revenue, but only by raising taxes, specifically by levying NEW taxes earmarked for a Parks District. If our overall tax rates were to remain as they are, there would be no new revenue generated. This is quite simply pie in the sky.
It’s not surprising that he would not just come out and say what he is proposing directly. Most taxpayers feel the problem is not the lack of revenue, but rather the failure of our city government to utilize those tax revenues efficiently and appropriately. What is needed is a thorough analysis and where and how those monies have been spent, and to determine if there are improvements we could make in the structure of our government and the utilization of staff that could lead to more effective use of our tax monies.
No one ever says “I’m in favor of raising taxes,” and with good reason.
A Difference of Opinion
There are apparently, however, some people in Ashland who have no problem with raising taxes. They are, simply, people who can afford it. They want it “all”, and they’re willing to pay for it. The cost is not an issue.
Many well-heeled retirees have chosen Ashland as their new home. Money may not be a consideration for many of them. Newcomer Bob Kaplan may be one of them.
On the other hand, about half of our population is rent burdened. Many people are struggling to meet their monthly bills. They cannot afford to pay for more amenities. People are leaving Ashland because they can no longer afford to live here.
One thing is certain about the future in Ashland: our utility rates are going to increase dramatically from now on, as they have been for the past ten years, but now “on steroids”. You can read about some of those anticipated increases here. Those increases alone will put even more stress on those who can least afford it: the rent burdened, those on fixed incomes. The one thing that they do not need is an additional increase in their property taxes.
Compounding Previous Errors
If you read Bob Kaplan’s description of the budget issue, you will notice that he’s basically saying: no problem. Don’t worry, be happy. Expenses were down last year. The city manager was able to shuffle money between funds in order to shore up the reserve fund.
What he doesn’t seem to realize is that this is just more of the same that got us to this point. Property tax revenue will be increasing at the same 3-3.5% that it always does. But we’ve just approved an increase of at least 11% to our personnel cost city wide in the next three years. The stock market is in bear territory, and many people are predicting a recession. These factors will put an enormous strain on the PERS payments the city is obligated to make to the state. Inflation is running hot, and the cost of everything is rising much faster than the city’s revenues. The city’s expenses are going to skyrocket.
Bob Kaplan described the last Citizens’ Budget Committee outcome as something positive, when in fact it was woefully inadequate, and simply exacerbated our financial problems. Nothing was done to address the structural deficit, except a vague amendment encouraging city council to find $1M in new savings or revenue during this biennium. The city council has done nothing in that respect. The only thing that has kept our revenues sufficient was the $4.3M handout from the federal government. Without that, our city balance sheet would look dramatically different than it does now.
In addition, Bob Kaplan voted to approve the budget that included a provision that allowed the entire Food and Beverage tax to be allocated to the APR budget without ratification by the voters. Many people found that to be improper, and possibly illegal. You can read a full history of the Food and Beverage tax in a series of four articles I wrote. You can find links to all of them here.
City Manager Joe Lessard has determined that Parks allocations and Recreation allocations have been commingled in contrary to the express prohibition in the city charter:
ARTICLE XXII – RECREATION COMMISSION Section 3. Any funds to be spent by the Recreation Commission for recreation purposes shall be from such funds as may be appropriated from time to time by the City Council, and in no event shall any funds be spent for recreation purposes that are received pursuant to Article XIX of this Charter and which relates to the Park Commission and a levy for park purposes.
This may very well require a reorganization of the current Parks and Recreation “Department”, which has been determined by the acting city attorney to not exist legally.
One thing is certain: the questions of how APR will be managed and funded is wide open at this time, with many moving parts. There is no way that these issues can be resolved in time for a decision by an informed election in May 2023, as Bob Kaplan suggests.
Bob Kaplan appears to favor a separate Parks District. To me, and many other taxpayers, this is the worst possible solution to both our revenue and organizational issues. Bob Kaplan is the only candidate for council who has expressed such a sentiment to date. He stated his position in a roundabout manner, which had the effect to obfuscate rather than enlighten.
To divorce the Parks and Rec department from the rest of the unified city government will probably result in less efficiency, higher costs, higher taxes, and less accountability to the public. Bob Kaplan’s touted financial expertise is worse than useless in this case, as he is proposing the opposite of what will be best for the city.
If you run into Bob, ask him about this issue. Ask him to be specific.
We need city councilors who are willing to make difficult decisions. We need city councilors who believe in the new form of government we approved in 2020 and will work toward making that a success. That must include supporting the city manager as the CEO of the municipal corporation—ALL of it. This is no time to allow the Parks and Recreation Department become an island unto itself.
It seems to me that this is reason enough to reject Bob Kaplan for city council, and instead vote for Jill Franko for city council, position #4.