The City Council Questionnaire: Position #4

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 #4, Jill Franko and Bob Kaplan. The answers are presented alphabetically by the candidates’ last names.

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

Jill Franko:

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?

I am voting yes on this measure. Our parks are a cornerstone to our community. We all love and value the beautification and care of our parks. This measure is not about our parks. This is about providing proper oversight and transparency for a department that has outgrown its capacity. Parks and Recreation was initially set up in its own silo to care for Lithia park, and a few other smaller parks. It now manages all recreation, the upkeep of the plaza, the numerous hiking/biking trails, and the extensive number of parks throughout the city. It has been operating in a silo and has not been able to manage the growth of their department. Led with an expansionist mentality, we have built parks to a level that exceeds our maintenance capabilities. Most would argue that our parks are not looking cared for or beautified, which is the primary role of the department. Parks would say they need more money, but in this biennium budget they received $25 million, where our fire department received only $20 million. Fire mitigation, both human caused and wild, is of highest priority in keeping our community safe. We cannot as a community be struggling to fund the fire department while overfunding a department that has reached its maximum capacity. It’s not a matter of money; it’s a matter of management. Vote YES so we can take care of our beloved parks. 

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?

Like most of our citizens, I support taxes that help all our citizens thrive. That means supporting taxes that ensure not only our basic city services and infrastructure are upheld, but that we address the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized citizens, without putting too much of a tax burden on those that are struggling to live month to month. That being said, our budget needs a complete restructuring. Bringing the F&B tax into the general fund means another bandaid. This measure does not address the real problem of our structural deficit. It extends the F&B tax which was always meant to be temporary. Although I appreciate the attempt to bring the F&B funds under a more generalized category, I don’t think it solves the real issues Ashland is facing. I have been torn about this ordinance because the truth is we do need to solve the budget deficit beyond 2023. However, I am not convinced this is addressing the underlying structural issues. I would like to see us implement an outcomes based budgeting model that does not base spending on the previous year’s budget, but bases the budget on a forward facing vision grounded in our values and goals. This type of outcomes based budgeting highlights good managers of people and money who keep their respective departments functioning in an efficient manner. So I am voting no on this measure so that we address our structural budget deficit instead of extending and avoiding the challenges before us.

Bob Kaplan:

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?

I’ll vote no because I don’t think the ballot measure is asking the right question. 

A century ago, Ashland established an independent governance structure and funding for our parks. The Parks Commission lost its earmarked levy in the mid-1990s because of statewide ballot initiatives, and we muddled through instead of asking Ashland voters then if they wanted to create an independent Parks District to mimic the old arrangement. We voted in 2020 for a strong City Manager form of government, explicitly exempting management of staff in the parks and recreation department. Today, our separately elected Parks and Recreation Commission still has the mandate to manage our parks and recreation programs, and it must compete for funding with Police, Fire, and general administration, so it’s not surprising to see a tug-of-war when budgets get tight. 

As I’ve talked with people around town, I hear frustration with some of the management decisions in Parks and Recreation, which is also an implicit criticism of the Commission’s oversight. I get that, but I don’t think further muddying management responsibility for parks and recreation programs will fix the problems people cite. It will only add further complexity to an already muddy situation.

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

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

I will vote against the ballot measure.

As a member of the Citizens Budget Committee, I voted with the majority to dedicate 98 percent of the meals tax to parks. I was persuaded it makes sense to use variable receipts from the meals tax to fund a substantial portion of parks’ expenses, which are more capable of flexing when receipts are down. This frees more of the City’s most stable source of revenue (property taxes) to fund Fire, Police, and General Administration expenses, which can’t flex much. There was some discussion in the committee about whether making this change would require a ballot measure, and we were advised it was not necessary. On this basis, the City Council endorsed this approach and approved the 2021-2023 biennial budget without putting the use of food and beverage tax proceeds on the ballot.

Ballot Measure 15-211 has the virtue of ensuring that proceeds from the meals tax can be used for general operations of our parks and not only for capital investment. Nevertheless, 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.

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

Jill Franko:

Affordable housing is going to require a variety of solutions, partnerships, and changes to get the job done. It isn’t going to be a single shot approach or an easy fix. We need to look at city policy, codes, and zoning to remove barriers to affordability for builders. We also need to look at ways to increase density, carefully and methodically extend urban growth boundaries, and waive certain fees to reduce costs for building. And we need to look at other ways of managing these properties so they don’t become a one time access to affordability for the first buyer only. You can only do that by maintaining them as rentals with a socially responsible management company. We can also look to community land trusts which lower costs by providing opportunities to buy the building only. Last, we can partner with public, private, and nonprofit entities to reduce upfront costs. The Ashland Housing and Human Services Commission recently completed a survey to residents regarding the housing needs of citizens. I look forward to working with the commission and sifting through the results to find the appropriate solutions that work for our community. 

Bob Kaplan:

Over the last eight weeks I’ve knocked on almost 3,000 doors across town and had many doorstep conversations with Ashland voters. Affordability is top of mind for many, and I look forward to working with the Council and staff to address this issue in creative ways that work for everyone. We are fortunate to own our utilities because it gives the Council some tools that other cities lack. We already offer low-income households a deep discount for electricity in winter months; I will work to extend this discount to the summer months as well when air conditioning is increasingly necessary for protection against extreme heat and smoke. I will also work to restructure our utility rates. The cost per kWh of electricity or cubic foot of water should be as low as possible for a reasonable base consumption amount, and it should be paid for by increasing rates more steeply on households that consume much more. We need to accompany rate restructuring with a proactive program to swap out inefficient heating and cooling equipment whenever possible and replace them with high efficiency heat pumps, taking advantage of new state and federal programs to reduce installation costs. I am hopeful the City Council will approve an assertive housing production strategy that includes securing existing low-cost housing in our three mobile home parks and exploring innovative approaches to take the high price of land out of the housing equation by expanding our community land trust or adding new ones.

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.

Jill Franko:

Over 50% of Ashland citizens struggle to pay their rent or mortgage.  The pandemic only intensified our need to rebuild our economic health. We must work together to address solutions to close our city’s budget gap without the continuous pressure of tax increases on already struggling residents. We have to change how our institution functions by looking to outcomes based budgeting techniques which place a premium on managerial efficiency. 

We can do this with standard budget practices that the Ashland school district has used to maintain a balanced budget year after year, combined with an outcomes based budgeting approach, we can reduce the pain of budget cuts for the community as a whole and maintain essential city services.

Overspending in the past five years has created a sizable deficit and the next Council is going to have to make some difficult decisions. I am committed to ensuring that essential city services are not neglected in this process. We can do something to change our cities’ financial viability for the citizens of today and tomorrow. 

Bob Kaplan:

The 2021-2023 Biennium Budget proposal presented to the Citizens Budget Committee in Spring 2021 projected General Fund expenses exceeding revenues by the end of the biennium unless the City Council takes action to fix the structural conditions that will lead to the shortfall. I agreed with that assessment, and the Budget Committee recommended that the City Council adopt the proposed 2021-2023 biennium budget with a call to reduce General Fund expenses by $1 million over the biennium. That was intended to be a down payment on further measures to be taken by the Council and staff in time for inclusion in the 2023-2025 biennium budget that will be presented in Spring 2023.

We are fortunate that actual expenses and revenues over the last 18 months have both been more favorable than was projected back in the winter/spring of 2021, which among other things allowed a transfer of $1.7 million from the General Fund into a Reserve Fund that had been nearly empty for years. But that’s no reason for complacency. 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.

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

Jill Franko:

I wish people would ask about the importance of vision. To me a vision for our community grounds us and guides us in a way that brings us together. A unified vision keeps our government focused and our community connected to what the government is doing to progress us forward. Without a vision, our local government and citizens argue aimlessly about the minutiae of insignificant and seemingly incongruent goals. When a community builds a vision collectively, and takes ownership towards its fruition, then the community feels responsible and accountable to the success and prosperity of every citizen. A community vision is not just gratuitous fluff. It is the foundation for a thriving community with shared goals. It is what keeps the government moving and progressing. I will keep us focused on our vision and goals so we can get out of the stuckness and stagnation that is preventing us from moving forward.

Bob Kaplan:

I wish folks would ask, “What more can I do to help our community and bring us all together?” Ashlanders are amazingly generous and volunteer so much of their time and resources to our community. I see and feel inspired by many examples of this every day. But I’m afraid the pandemic and stresses of the last couple of years have also fueled divisiveness, rancor, snark, and cynicism. I see it on social media, and also in the real world in how folks drive or treat people around town. We can all do a little more for our community, and be a little more gracious with each other. I’d like to join with the rest of our elected officials and City staff to invite everyone to participate in creating our very best Ashland. I appreciate the Ashland Chronicle’s question, which also asks me to explain why it’s important to my campaign. Well, my campaign is about appreciating our community and every one of us who helps make it a better place for all of us to live and work and play.

Links to the other questionnaires:

Position 2:  Joy Fate and Tonya Graham

Position 6:  Jim Falkenstein and Eric Hansen