Kicking the Can Down the Road by Addie Greene

On May 22 the Ashland Citizens’ Budget Committee by a 9 to 4 vote approved Councilor Dennis Slattery’s motion to pass the recommended 2019-2021 budget, although no one on the committee appeared happy with it. Councilor Rich Rosenthal moved to create an ad hoc committee to establish new revenue sources, which passed unanimously.

            The meeting came on the heels of Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi’s resignation protesting the elimination of three fire fighter positions in the proposed budget. The chief’s salary and benefits are still in the budget, however, and the funds cannot be transferred to support the salaries and benefits of the three fire fighters, whose salaries averaged $70,000 a year and benefits $44,100 in 2018-2019, for a total savings of $342,300.

The proposed increase in property taxes of 4.285 cents per $1000 would add revenue of $150,000. The $342,300 in savings and $150,000 in added revenue bring the projected deficit down from $1,190,281 to $697,981. As committee members agreed, there is more work to be done. No wonder no one was happy.

            City Administrator Kelly Madding listed these proposed reductions in expenses/increases in fees from the committee’s May 15 meeting:

  • Reduce Ashland Fire and Rescue’s operating budget by $200,000
  • Reduce AFR’s materials and services budget by $100,000
  • Reduce the Administration budget by $50,000
  • Cut the Police Department budget by $35,000 by reducing jail beds
  • Reduce the Community Development budget by $100,000 (not recommended by Madding)
  • Eliminate the cultural, sustainable economic grants funded by the Transient Occupancy Tax and move this $220,000 to the general fund
  • Increase property taxes the maximum allowed by law
  • Add a 5% franchise fee for Ashland Fiber Network subscribers (to be absorbed by AFN) for revenue of $120,000
  • Increase water fees 4% each year, increase wastewater fees 4% each year, increase electric fees 5% each year, increase street fees 3-5% each year to fund capital projects
  • Raise the Ashland Fire Resiliency fee from $1.79 to $4.50 per month to fund the CERT director’s and forestry fireman’s salaries.

These budget cuts and revenue increases will get the budget to within $30,200 of being balanced, Madding said, and that deficit can be taken from the fund balance in order to balance the budget. All figures are annual, she said.

Retiring Finance Director Mark Welch proposed video arraignments to save money and allocating the food and beverage tax to the general fund.

If there is a live entertainment ticket tax, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would prefer a percentage rather than a flat tax, Welch said.

Budget Committee Chair David Runkel said, “We are moving in the right direction” but urged the committee to table Slattery’s motion to adopt until the budget can be balanced. The city faces a 13% increase in personnel costs, he said, and suggested that other departments besides Fire and Rescue contribute to cost cutting. Runkel’s motion to postpone adopting the budget failed on a vote of 10 to 3.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said, “Over the years we have added positions not essential to the city but which are value services. The citizens want these value services.”

Of the $100,000 reduction in Ashland Fire and Rescue’s maintenance budget, Deputy Chief David Shepherd said, “You are nickel and diming us. Ten years from now we will reach the life span of these items. Tech equipment is very expensive. We will recycle our 12-year-old radios.”

AFR’s equipment replacement fund is “not that healthy,” Welch remarked.

“I’m not prepared to say we’ll be fine,” Shepherd said. “We’ll do the best we can.”

“We are at a philosophical divide, Rosenthal said. “This city has many services that other cities don’t. Two years from now (the city’s) situation is going to be worse. This is not OK for the long term.”

At the beginning of the meeting, the microphone was open to citizen comments. “We have too many employees,” Ken Wilson said. “Only 4% of (Fire Department) calls are for fire. Ambulance calls can be outsourced. The Ashland Fiber Network is $10 million in debt, and 65% of city employees are compensated more than $100,000 a year.”

            Another speaker argued that “We need a full complement of fire fighters. CERT brings a tremendous value to the city.”

Addie Greene, Ashland

//inserted by Sharon