Controversy as The Ashland Council Adopts Its Two Year Budget

Ashland City Council Adopts Budget Amid Controversy

By Chronicle Staff

The Ashland City Council adopted its budget of roughly 300 million dollars at their first meeting in June, despite immediate pushback from members of the council and the Citizens Budget Committee which continues to create ripples of controversy throughout the community.

“The people of Ashland did not elect us to raise their rates. They voted for us to make the hard decisions,” said Councilor Gina DuQuenne of the budget passage.

Touted by critics as the highest budget to date with an admitted “structural deficit” of three point five million, according to City Finance Director Melanie Purcell, it calls for increased fees for electric rates by just over 4% on average, increases to the stormwater utility fee by 9% and a 2.07% hike in the transportation fee.

Two of the three new councilors seated in January and the mayor have publicly objected to the size of the budget and increased fees on residents.

“When you have 20% of the population in Ashland living below the poverty line, which is nearly twice the national average, you can’t be continuously raising utility rates” said Mayor Julie Akins. She went on to say, “The ones who suffer most pay the highest percentage of their incomes on these fees. Rents are already unaffordable and now rates are raised again. Who will be left to pay for our city services if we continue this way?”

Oregon housing data confirms roughly one-third of Ashland residents are “severely rent burdened” meaning they pay more than 50% of their income on housing, according to Oregon Department of Housing and Human Services.

Yet others who voted in favor of the budget which include Councilors Tonya Graham, Stefani Seffinger, Steven Jensen and newcomer Paula Hyatt claim the increases to the budget are necessary to keep up. “It gives me no pleasure,” said Councilor Graham of the rate hikes, “But we must protect our infrastructure.” Her sentiment was echoed by Councilor Hyatt who also supported hikes when making her motion.

Councilor Shaun Moran, a long time budget hawk and member of the Citizens Budget Committee prior to taking office as a councilor read from a prepared speech, the only councilor to do so.

Due to requests from our readers, here is the transcript of his comments:

“As I see it there are a lot of problems with this budget.  First and foremost, senior staff and various department heads, almost entirely, put the budget together with little or no input from us as Ashland’s elected officials. Yes, the budget should represent the goals and values of the stakeholders and the community, so presenting a 250 page budget to the budget committee and not asking me or others for feedback- as elected officials – about what our priorities are or the goals and values of our continuants, quite frankly, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Secondly, despite some attempts by some to suggest that this budget has been cut to the bone Ashlanders know that is just nonsense. What is clear: the total requirements/resources outlined for this budget at $348 million is the largest, frothiest, meatiest budget Ashland has ever seen. There has not been any serious attention given to cutting costs at all, lip service YES, serious discussion NO. 

The budget committee, during the budget process, was presented with an eye popping estimated 400 pages of documents over five meetings yet the Budget Committee was not given adequate time to discuss in the 5th meeting, (the most important in my view), proposals put forth to consider changes to it. [the budget]

More than a dozen serious proposals to address reductions or cost savings never came up for discussion or a vote because the meeting had a hard stop, we were told, because the television service could not be extended.  No additional meetings were scheduled, we were told,  because it was necessary to move forward to meeting the Council’s schedule. Yet, in my recollection, this budget is before us at the earliest time in recent city history. 

Thirdly , the proposals to implement the Budget Committee’s recommendation to cut general fund expenses or add revenues of $1 million as a first step in dealing with the structural deficit to be looked at over the next 2 yrs just reinforces this same lets “kick the can down the road and hope for the best” approach that got the city into this financial mess to start with.

The fact remains that we are facing a huge fiscal deficit – $15-20ml by 2026 – yet incredibly there is still zero sense of urgency in dealing with these pressing budgetary issues.

Fourth,  This budget is an illusion of good budgeting… Yes it is legal as expenditures are offset by revenues – but thank goodness for the $4.4ml from the federal government in the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), because without it to paraphrase what Finance Director Purcell suggested “the wheels would have fallen off.”

 In this budget It is said: we’re not hiring, but in almost every department in the General Fund we are increasing staff vs the 2019-2020 ACTUAL budget.

-In this budget it said:  we we are giving rate payers rate relief, but outside of first year of your Water bill ALL utility rates are increasing over the next two years as outlined in various master plans. The only reason WasteWater Rates aren’t increasing is because $1.3 million has already been taken out of the WasteWater Fund.

  • In this budget it said: the city is taking to heart belt tightening and the recommendations of the cost cut committee but expenses are set to increase sharply. We are moving forward with a grossly exaggerated CIP [capitol improvement project] plan which includes first steps to fund a $40million water treatment plant we don’t need nor can afford. 
  • There is even $70 thousand budgeted to provide senior staff with a travel allowance to get to work each day.  Sure, people who work for our city have a choice not to live here but the overwhelming majority of Ashlanders would agree taxpayers shouldn’t be paying senior staff a car travel allowance if they decide not to live in our town, but we are.

In campaigning up to the November 2020 election I definitely heard the message of the Ashland voter loud and clear. Citizens didn’t elect us to take the easy road of increasing costs while not doing the work of prioritizing how we spent their money. We cant as elected officials say that we understand that it is increasingly hard for people to live here,  that we sympathize with those who struggle financially with ever increasing living costs BUT at every opportunity make excuses and then vote to make affordability and livability a real challenge for so many. I cant support that and I wont.

What I do know is – the tax payers of Ashland – the voters who put us in these seats aren’t stupid. They see what is happening and I’m very glad they do. Hopefully they will be motivated at the next election a little over one year from now to act.”

After Councilor Moran concluded his remarks, the budget was passed by a vote of four to two as recommended by Interim City Manager Adam Hanks on a roll call. This voting in favor were Councilors Graham, Seffinger, Jensen and Hyatt. This opposed were Councilors Moran and DuQuenne.

The budget goes into effect July 1,2021.