A “Critical State” for the Ashland Budget – A Must Read!

A “Critical State” for the Ashland Budget

By Addie Greene

Citing the $2.5-million shortfall in the current Ashland city budget, Chair of the Citizens Budget Committee,  David Runkel said this deficit has put the city in a “critical state.” Runkel and Citizen Member,  Garrett Furuichi were interviewed by journalist Julie Akins during the Ashland Chronicle Forum of the Citizens’ Budget Committee. The forum, in two 30-minute segments, was broadcast live over local television Friday evening.

“One of the big things is PERS (Public Employees Retirement System),” Furuichi said. “We can’t control it, and we don’t have reserves.” He said the city will be responsible for $4 to $6-million in contributions to PERS during the 2017-2019 budget cycle.

Runkel pointed out that Ashland’s payment of employee contributions to PERS and health care was “something the city did 20 years ago in lieu of salary increases. Now it’s written into their contracts. We keep adding employees—we’re at the highest level of employees we’ve ever had.”

“Fees are greater,” Furuichi said, after the broadcast displayed a copy of a local utility bill, “but utility charges are not under the jurisdiction of the Budget Committee,” Runkel added.

“We have a limited role in approving property tax changes,” Furuichi said. “They are already maxed out and will have to go to the voters” if the city wants further increases.

“Is the city spending too much money?” Akins asked. “From my perspective, yes,” Furuichi responded.

Committee members in the May, 2017  budget committee meetings suggested budget cuts, Runkel said, but were “shot down.”

The biennial budget is $285,832,964, an increase of $45,928,130, or 19.1%, over the amended 2015-2017 budget. This reporter, in going over the 345-page budget online, wondered why it is necessary to spend $3,250,000 to rebuild and cover the Daniel Meyer pool, $750,000 for YMCA park replacement, $265,000 for a second dog park, and $230,000 for a Lithia Park master plan. She also wondered why it is necessary to have an Executive Analyst and a Management Analyst under the City Administrator and an Assistant City Administrator and an Assistant to the City Administrator.

In the meanwhile, low income energy assistance is down from $99,902 in 2013 to a projected $88,000 in 2018.

“The change from the prior budget,” the document states, “is primarily due to increased capital project spending (50.4%) in the Street, Water, Wastewater, Airport and Park CIP funds.” As for the addition of five police officers to city staff, “The proposed revenue source to cover these positions is a public safety fee that would be assessed monthly via utility bills,” the document states.

In Ashland Fire and Rescue’s section of the budget, the document states, “While we are grateful for the additional firefighters (three hired in 2016), a 19% increase in staffing does not make up for the 33% increase in 911 responses.” “Wildland fires were contained to just 9.6 acres (primarily grass and brush),” the document states.

“During the last election,” Akins said, “candidates identified affordable housing as the city’s most pressing issue.” (The budget document itself says “Close to 9 in 10 survey participants indicated that funding for affordable housing should be at least a medium priority for the city, and a majority of respondents (58%) thought it should be a high priority for Ashland.”)

Runkel’s response was “More people need to know and be concerned.”

After the break between program segments, the forum took questions from the audience. Claudia Ballard, a resident for almost 30 years, asked “If we don’t have reserves, where did they go, and why can’t reserves be used to fund the $2.2-million current project deficit?”

“The 2015-2017 budget started with a fund balance,” Furuichi said, “but the health care fund was short of money and so took the reserves.”

Runkel pointed out that the Parks and Recreation budget subsidizes golfers and ice skaters, among other constituent groups.

Sandra Sawyer, a resident for 34 years, asked, “Does the Budget Committee have a member on the Audit Committee, and if not, why?”

Runkel said late in the afternoon of the day the appointment was to be made, he was asked to be on the Audit Committee. He said yes, and then the City Council voted down his membership. “A Budget Committee member is there (on the Audit Committee) to represent citizens. I hope this is corrected next year,” he said.

Andrew Kubik, a resident for eight years, asked about performance metrics and “Can you convince the City Council to be more precise?”

“The budget a year from now will be more detailed,” Runkel replied and cited having an interim City Administrator and high personnel turnover.

“There are a lot of performance metrics for police operations,” Furuichi added.

“Is there a comparative basis with other cities for Ashland’s $500,000 grant to the Chamber of Commerce?” Kubik asked.

“The Chamber gets a big chunk of money for tourist promotion (which is mandated by the state),” Runkel replied. “Tourism money in some cities goes to other organizations.”

“The bottom line is, Ashland needs to prioritize its expenses,” Runkel said. “If you don’t set priorities, then nothing is a priority.”