The City Council Questionnaire: Position #2

The editors of the Ashland Chronicle contacted all six of the candidates for city council with a short list of four questions.  All six replied, and we are presenting their answers in three separate articles, one for each position.

Our only requests were that the answers be less than 250 words each, and that we receive their responses by midnight October 14.

Following are the answers from the candidates for Position #2, Joy Fate and Tonya Graham. The answers are presented alphabetically by the candidates’ last names.

1.  What stand do you take on Ashland’s Ballot measures?  Explain your stance.

Joy Fate:

Ballot Measure 15-210, Ashland’s Charter

Shall Ashland amend its City Charter to delegate all authority to appoint, supervise, and remove employees to the City Manager?

In accordance with supporting the decision made by Ashland voters to change our government style to that of having a City manager, I support giving the City Manager full responsibility for overseeing the operations of ALL departments of our city government.  This measure would bring Parks and Recreation programs under the management umbrella of the City Manager’s office, reserving policy setting in the Parks and Recreation Commission.

One important reason I support this change is it will substantially reduce liability insurance costs to the city.  The Council has been informed by its insurance carrier [CIS] that, because of the divide in management between Parks/Recreation and the City, higher liability risks exist and therefore, more expensive premiums.  In part, those premium increases have been generated by the settlement of one employment lawsuit against the city Parks Department that led to a $500,000 settlement paid for by the city’s insurance.  In another lawsuit filed against Parks by a female Parks employee, alleges she was repeatedly harassed by four other male Parks employees for years.

There are many other complaints about the management of City parks, particularly the lack of upkeep of the golf course and Lithia Park.

Many people may not be aware of Parks’ failure to meet with city school officials for more than six months during the Walker School improvement project.  This negligence led to a $4 million increase in costs, and forced the need to create a temporary school on the ScienceWorks grounds.Of the 34 employees currently in the Park’s Department, 15 are listed as directors, managers or supervisors.  I question whether that’s the best management structure.

Ballot Measure 15-211, Ashland’s Food & Beverage Tax Ordinance

Shall the Ordinance be amended to dedicate a portion of revenues to general government services and extend the sunset date?

This measure provides the City Council with more flexibility in city spending.  Presently, the Food & Beverage tax money can only be used for Parks Capital Projects (25 percent) with the remaining 75 percent allocated for wastewater treatment plant improvements and street repairs.

Simply put, this proposal would give the City Council the authority it should have when deciding how best to allocate the tax income for public benefit based on the priorities of the people of Ashland.  I’m supporting this measure because Ashland is facing a difficult budget situation with a built-in deficit; the City Council should have all available tools at hand to fix the problem. 

Tonya Graham:

Ballot Measure 15-210, Ashland’s Charter

Shall Ashland amend its City Charter to delegate all authority to appoint, supervise, and remove employees to the City Manager?

Our parks and recreation programs are a key element in our quality of life and a major reason why many of us call Ashland home. Some of my fondest memories are from time spent in our parks.

Since the beginning of our park system, parks and recreation services have been managed by an independently elected body – Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC). In the 90s, state legislation put the revenue for APRC under the control of the city council. Today, much of the parks and recreation budget comes from the City to APRC, which then directs how to invest the funding and supervises staff to do so.

Measure 15-210 proposes to put parks and recreation employees who are supervised by the Parks and Recreation Director (who answers to APRC) under the direction of the City Manager (who answers to the City Council). If it passes, the City Manager will take direction from APRC for the city’s parks and recreation programs, but will take direction for all other city operations from the Ashland City Council. The City Manager will also have the authority to hire and fire the Parks and Recreation Director, an authority currently held by APRC.

Some decisions are so large that they should be made by the voters, and this is one of them. I voted to put this measure on the ballot to find out how Ashlanders want to proceed and will work to implement whichever decision our community makes.

Ballot Measure 15-211, Ashland’s Food & Beverage Tax Ordinance

Shall the Ordinance be amended to dedicate a portion of revenues to general government services and extend the sunset date?

In 2016, Ashlanders voted to invest the Food and Beverage Tax in parks capital improvement projects, paying off the wastewater treatment facility debt, and large street projects.

The City paid off the wastewater treatment plant debt in 2020 and in the 2021-23 budget changed the way we manage street funding to pay for large street projects with the franchise fees that utilities pay for access to the rights of way on our streets.

The question is whether the 73% of the Food and Beverage Tax that can no longer be spent on the wastewater treatment plant and large street projects should be placed in the General Fund for the Ashland Budget Committee to determine where it should be spent.

Like Ballot Measure 15-210, this is a decision that should be made by the voters. I voted to put this to Ashland voters because I want to know how the citizens of Ashland want the City to invest these funds. It is important for the Council to hear what the voters want for an issue as important as this. Either way, I will work to help the community realize its goals for this funding.

2.  How are you going to make it more possible for folks who work in Ashland to live in Ashland?

Joy Fate:

First things first.  Ashland does not have nearly enough inventory of housing that average people can afford, so we must first pave the way by encouraging developers to build the homes and apartments we desperately need.  Part of incentivizing new construction includes a review of our city’s Planning and Community Development operations, including fee structures and how and when those development fees must be paid, in order to encourage development of affordable housing.  For instance, current policy requires development  fees to be paid up front, despite knowing many projects take years to complete and to fully occupy new apartment complexes.  One way to incentivize building would be for the City to allow developers to spread out the payment of development fees over the course of the project’s occupancy timeline.

Second, the city of Ashland owns property that could be made available for construction and a land trust for affordable housing, including the Public Works department land at B Street and North Mountain.  Several years ago, the city bought property near the sewage treatment plant with the eye toward transferring the street operations there, but nothing ever happened.  Now’s the time to do it.

Third, Ashland needs to continue to work closely with County, State and Federal housing officials [HUD – housing and urban development] to build more affordable housing projects, similar to the recently completed Snowberry Brook development off of Clay Street.

Tonya Graham:

A house in Ashland costs more than the same house in other local communities because of Ashland’s quality of life. People want to live in successful communities and that drives housing prices up. If we want a community with diverse incomes, ages, and ethnicities, and I do, we must take bold action. The competitive market will not serve low and middle-income residents.

We are making progress. The City:

  • completed a Housing Needs Analysis
  • streamlined its affordable housing regulations
  • is developing a Housing Production Strategy that includes policy changes and innovative projects
  • partnered with the Jackson County Housing Authority on the Snowberry Brook affordable housing development
  • is developing a request for proposals for community organizations to develop modest workforce housing above the Hargadine Parking Garage
  • is considering how our surplus property can be leveraged for this and other community goals

This is an important issue for me. As a city councilor, I brought forward the Hargadine Parking Garage proposal, advocated that we consider using surplus property for affordable housing, and supported the Housing Needs Analysis, Production Strategy, the Grand Terrace project, and changes to the annexation code and affordable housing regulations.

Moving forward, I will work to:

  • ensure significant affordable housing in the Croman Mill project
  • aggressively implement the Housing Production Strategy
  • develop innovative partnerships with large landowners to develop affordable housing
  • support efforts to develop a community land trust to get existing housing into the affordable housing portfolio
  • address other issues related to affordability, particularly the lack of early childcare

3. Do you believe the city budget is in trouble and if so what will you do about it?  If you don’t believe the budget is in trouble, please explain why it is not in trouble.

Joy Fate:

As recent finance directors have repeatedly warned, Ashland faces a structural deficit in the general fund.  That is, for a number of years, the city has been spending more than tax revenue brings in.  For the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, the city’s budget was saved by a $4.3 million dollar federal Covid grant.  For the current fiscal year, the Council approved $1.5 million in department budget cuts, half in personnel costs by not filling open positions.

The primary source of city revenue is property taxes.  Ashland has raised the property tax rate to the maximum allowable by law, therefore, we cannot raise the property tax rate any further.  Other revenue raising options that have been suggested, such as a tax on entertainment tickets, are not popular and would only partially solve the city’s financial problems.

In my view, we must start by setting priorities for city spending.  The city must live within its means just as every family must do. 

I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of priority-based budget decisions, though I pledge to work cooperatively with my Council colleagues and members of the Citizens’ Budget Committee to come up with reasonable solutions.

Tonya Graham:

The City’s budget is made up of the General Fund (fire, police, parks, streets, and planning) and enterprise funds (electric, water, wastewater, and Ashland Fiber Network). Enterprise funds are funded when we pay for utilities and/or Internet service.

Our challenge lies in the General Fund, which is funded mostly by property taxes. Our city budget is always balanced, so there is no deficit, but there is a structural shortfall from property taxes not being able to keep up with the natural growth of expenses.

By state law, our property taxes can go up only 3% each year, but many expenses rise faster than that annually. Health care insurance, unfunded mandates from the Public Employees Retirement System, changing regulations, and inflation push expenses beyond what our tax base can manage.

Our staff has worked valiantly to protect the services we love from this financial vice by trimming expenses, cutting staffing, and deferring expenses. Council has added fees to generate revenue. But we have run out of road to kick the can down. We must make hard decisions about whether to maintain the services we have by increasing revenue, or reduce services to address this financial reality.

Short answer – no, we are not in a crisis. We just put $1.5 million in a reserve fund, our ending fund balances are strong, and our debt ratio is low. But we have been deferring maintenance and asking more of our staff than we are providing them funding to accomplish. We need to fix that.

4.  What question do you wish folks were asking that they aren’t asking?  Explain why it is important to your campaign.

Joy Fate:

In campaigning, I’ve been impressed with how concerned residents of all ages are on the issues facing our city government.  People are aware of our budget problem, the shortage of affordable housing and the failure of City Council members to work together in a respectful way to deal with a variety of issues.

Unfortunately as we see so often most people take a position that fails to take into consideration the affordability of implementing policies.  One example is the  “electrifying Ashland” proposal which is unaffordable for the (over half of) Ashland residents who are severely rent-burdened.  A disproportionately large number of our residents are already significantly rent-burdened; most don’t have money left at the end of the month after paying rent (or a mortgage), increasing utility fees, putting food on the table, school expenses, vehicle expenses, insurance, etc. etc., to put into a “savings” account, much less being able to afford upgrades to their homes or purchasing EV’s/electric bicycles.  People in Ashland are really selling their plasma to make ends meet.  

How are “we” expecting over half of Ashland to afford those increases on our utility bills, outrageous rents, purchase an electric vehicle, afford to buy/lease/install solar panels, fancy new electric kitchen appliances?

I’ve spent more than a decade of my 23 years as an Ashland resident being of service and volunteering in our community, providing assistance to low, very low and no income community members. When the Covid pandemic hit Ashland, keeping everyone safe was a top priority but the homeless community had no place to shelter safely in place, instead wandering our streets and prohibited camping in our parks.  Without any grants, funding or paycheck, I opened and successfully ran a low-barrier homeless shelter for almost three years, keeping those individuals safely sheltered, fed and away from doing harm in our city.

It matters to me as a long-time resident and council candidate that Ashland is a welcoming and affordable community for everyone.

In my work on the City Council, I’ll be the voice – the representative – speaking for all Ashland residents including those whose voices are seldom heard on issues of concern to them.  Those who have the greatest trouble paying their bills.  This includes senior citizens, the disabled and those subsisting on an inadequate, fixed income.  

Let me give you a small example of misguided policies:  The City this year provided $300 dollars (in grant money) to people buying new, expensive, electric bicycles.  There are community members who can’t afford a good traditional bike, let alone an electric one costing thousands of dollars.  I realize this is not a big ticket expense item in the city budget, but is it the best way to show equity for all?

Tonya Graham:

I wish more organizations were asking about how we will address the existential threat caused by the climate crisis. Many individuals are asking this question, but organizations seem so focused on their particular issues that they are not asking about the driver of many of our collective challenges – challenges that also threaten their goals.

Here in Ashland, we are seeing this threat in the form of extreme heat, accelerating wildfire risk, health impacts from wildfire smoke, and drought. We are seeing the results in terms of our physical and mental health as well as the health of our visitor economy. We know what it is to feel fear when we see wildfire smoke.

Those of us who have lived in Ashland for a long time know that this is not how it used to be.

We have a limited time (by 2030) to make transformational shifts in how we use energy and what we consume if we are to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. If we do it right, we will move our community toward greater social equity in the process. If we do not take effective action at scale, we will create even greater social inequity than we currently face.

Helping communities take climate action is my expertise, and I have worked to bring climate change front and center in council decisions as a city councilor. For the sake of our children, we need to double down on this work and make an even bigger difference in the coming years. 

Links to the other questionnaires:

Position 4:  Jill Franko and Bob Kaplan

Position 6:  Jim Falkenstein and Eric Hansen