Analysis and Opinion by Dean Silver

There was plenty of interesting conversation at City Hall last week.  Two meetings, a City Council business meeting on Tuesday, June 21, and a Parks and Recreation Commission special business meeting via Zoom on Thursday, June 23 were worthy of further examination.

We have analyzed the interactions at the City Council meeting regarding APR/the budget/the 2022 election here https://theashlandchronicle.com/parks-pure-power-play/ .  It centered on the ballot initiative that has been filed by a group known as Friends of Ashland Parks, Trails and Outdoor Spaces (FAPTOS).

There’s one more important aspect to this discussion that needs to be considered: what exactly is APRC, in the name of FAPTOS, trying to accomplish by gaining control over 98% of the FBT?

For the answer, we simply need to view the APRC special business meeting of June 23.  You can view the video here https://youtu.be/8hIJ8b4GvJA . The meeting was called expressly to have the APRC commissioners vote to approve a “Recommendation to Mayor and Council to place PET-01 (Allocating 100% of Food and Beverage Revenue to APRC) on the November ballot”.

Michael Black, who appears to be the man behind the curtain for all of these machinations, made a presentation to the commission explaining how the money would flow and how beneficial it would be for APR’s projects and operations. He stated, as he has so often in the past, that APR is looking for a “dedicated” source of funding, and that the FBT would be just that.

The fact is, however, that APR already HAS a “dedicated” funding source: property taxes allocated through the city general fund.  Nothing can be more “dedicated” than that.  The property tax revenue is reliable. It is virtually guaranteed, and rises by about 3% per year, and sometimes more; it is required by law.  The FBT, however, fluctuates year to year.

What Michael Black is REALLY saying is that APR wants a “guaranteed amount of unrestricted funding”.  Never mind that the $2-3 million FBT is only a small portion of the funding required for the APR GF, which runs about $7 million per year.  APR would still be dependent upon the Council to allocate the additional funds.  And furthermore, the current budget specifies that for every dollar of FBT that APR received, it will receive one dollar LESS from the city general fund.  There will be no change in overall funding.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s critical to understanding what Black is up to.  In his view, the FBT would become, in effect, a slush fund for APR, to use however the APRC sees fit.  You won’t hear him state that explicitly, but it doesn’t take sophisticated skills of deduction to realize it.  He has stated repeatedly that the Council and the Manager have absolutely NO SAY regarding APR uses of funding once they’ve been allocated.  Once APR has control of the FBT, APR can use it for anything… and that would include any of the many pet projects that APR has been promoting for years.  Those would include a new $5-6 million pool.

One of the many objections that taxpayers have been making is that APR concentrates far too much on new projects.  They do this at the expense of maintaining the parks and facilities that we currently enjoy.

Listen to the video of that 6/23 special business meeting of APRC.  After Black made his presentation, he stated, [15:00] “Any money that is raised through revenue earned with Food and Beverage and applied for parks is less money that needs to come from the city’s general fund to support parks. Having it be dedicated means that APR can count on those funds, and we can assure that when we are creating master plans, when we are creating plans for a new park, when we’re creating plans for trails, when we’re creating plans for open space, that we can follow through with those plans and continue to maintain those properties into the future.”

Rick Landt called his reasoning into question.  He pointed out that the FBT would only cover a portion of APR’s operating expenses, and would not make any difference in APR’s total funding. Black responded, [16:47] “I believe the ordinance is written in a way that parks and recreation commissioners can decide how the full 98% is used….” [18:15] “It would be at the commissioners’ discretion how, how much between zero and 98% was used for operations.

What he is describing is “carte blanche”.  Listen to the entire meeting to get the full flavor of the discussion.  It’s only 40 minutes long.

APR Declares War

The other critical information from the APRC meeting was that APR is about to hire its own legal counsel, independent of the city attorney.  Michael Black pointed out correctly that the city attorney cannot represent the city council, the city manager, and APRC if their interests do not align.  He is clearly stating that they do not align.  And he is right—as long as APR is quasi-independent of the rest of our city government, and as long as APR is competing with the rest of the city government for funding, there will be conflict.

So to that end, Landt suggested, “I think that this might be a time where it would make sense for us to look for our own counsel.”  Commissioner Eldridge questioned the cost involved. Landt responded, “There is money in the budget for legal, so it wouldn’t have to come out of another part of the budget.”

Indeed there is money in the budget: $100,000 budgeted expressly for legal in APR’s budget for this biennium. (This issue was exposed last year here https://theashlandchronicle.com/100000-legal-expenses-found-in-apr-budget-director-refuses-to-explain/

APR requested that this large sum be placed in their budget for legal expenses in the beginning of the budget process in 2021.  APR has been anticipating going to “war” with the city regarding their funding by requesting these funds, funds that had never been budgeted to APR for legal purposes in the past.  And all the while, APR has been complaining about their lack of funding for other purposes.  The hypocrisy is staggering.

Commissioner Eldridge asked, “Are you kind of proposing that we actively quickly find counsel on like a contracting basis?”  To which Landt replied without hesitation, “Yes.”

Since there were many questions regarding the hiring of outside counsel, that issue will be explored more fully at the next APRC meeting.  Landt proposed changing the next study session to a business meeting so that the question can be resolved “expeditiously”.

But is hiring legal counsel simply intended to help APR deal with the ballot initiative?  If the proposal was filed by FAPTOS, APRC should have no part to play.  Yet Michael Black and the commissioners seem to think that APRC needs legal representation.  Why exactly would that be required? 

$100,000  represents substantial legal fees.  Could it be this is the first step in an attempt for APR to attempt to form a special district and “withdraw” even farther from the rest of Ashland’s city government?  APRC has been bandying that idea around for quite awhile.  It would, of course, require approval by the electorate.

Do you think a special district for Parks with the ability to levy additional taxes is a good idea? Do you think that will be the next move by APRC if the FAPTOS initiative fails?  Would the taxpayers of this city tolerate that?