Analysis and Opinion by Dean Silver
There is so much wrong with the draft SOURCE budget survey contracted by the City Council that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start at the beginning.
The idea for a survey was conceived last year when the Council was fending off a constant onslaught of lobbying by APR. They were claiming that their funding had been slashed so much over the years that they just couldn’t do it all anymore. That, of course, is untrue, and an issue for many other analyses, past and present. (Hint: search the Ashland Chronicle, or click on my byline on this article.) But it was also during a period when everyone’s hair was on fire due to the structural deficit in the budget.
So rather than tackle the questions of how to deal with the deficit and how to appropriate what money the city was collecting, the majority of Council decided to punt. Tonya Graham suggested hiring SOU to do a survey of the taxpayers to determine their preferences. Tonya seemingly has never met a consultant she didn’t love. It’s much easier to pay someone else to do your thinking for you, I guess, especially when you’re paying with other peoples’ money.
It creditable that the Council wanted taxpayer’s input, but it was ironic that the cost for this survey turned out to be $32,313. They could have simply talked to people. Perhaps they thought this would be easier. Perhaps some of them thought it would be more representative and accurate. They were the usual suspects, the reliable four vote majority. Despite the objections of the two fiscally responsible Councilors, the contract was approved on December 21, 2021.
Everyone agreed that the timeline was very tight. As it turns out, the survey is now eleven weeks behind schedule. That’s the reason for the urgency to ram this survey through, but it would be a serious mistake.
The City’s Obligations
From the contract proposal:
Note items 3, 4, and 5. None of those items have been presented to the public.
Also from the contract proposal (my emphasis):
In order for the respondents to understand the implications of what they are choosing, the City will write brief backgrounds (pros and cons, if appropriate) for each decision on the survey, and the City will also construct a webpage that will contain a full discussion of the pros and cons of each decision on the survey.
It is clear that without the background discussion, SOURCE realizes that the responses cannot be considered valid. Yet the City has not presented this information. Until that information is adequately addressed, a valid survey cannot be conducted. And the sheer volume of information necessary to make sense of these proposals makes it unlikely that the city can possibly provide thorough and meaningful discussions.
The Basic Statistics
The first rule of logic is: if the basic assumptions are wrong, the entire argument will be invalid.
The contract proposal acknowledges that there are 11,000 utility addresses in the city, a generally accepted number.
Yet if you examine Box #1, the survey indicates that if each utility address pays $13/month, the city could “maintain current spending levels”. In other words, the $2,000,000 deficit would be covered.
Let’s do some simple arithmetic. $13 x 12 months = $156 per address per year. But $2,000,000 divided by $156 equals 12,820 assumed payments. Thus this calculation of $13 is based upon a user base 16% greater than the actual user base. Therefore, the $13 figure is incorrect.
The correct arithmetic “answer” to box 1 is actually $15.15/month, or $181.80/year per address.
And, hey! Doesn’t that monthly figure look a lot more palatable than the annual amount?
Are ALL of the calculations off by 16% throughout, in every option? That’s not an insignificant difference. But as we’ll see later, it may not even matter. The numbers may be total inaccuracies.
You know what they say about building on a foundation of sand….
The Basic Design—Apples and Oranges
When looking at the different “boxes” (scenarios), it’s striking that about half of them contain items that have no relation to the others. For example:
#4: Planning / street maintenance / regionalize public safety
#5: regionalize public safety / reduce parks admin / stop maintaining all except 3 parks
#6: delay or reduce capital improvements / eliminate citizen committees
#7: reduce street maintenance/ delay replacing vehicles/ reduce parks maintenance
#8: eliminate citizen committees / delay replacing vehicles / fewer court cases
Etc., etc, etc.
So what happens if a respondent is in favor of one or two items, but not the other. There is no allowance for such a response. And that is why this survey cannot discover anything meaningful.
I would guess it was designed so that each “item” would have positive or negative values, and those values would be correlated by SOURCES’ statistical software. But that won’t work, if a person is only happy with a part of their answer.
Furthermore, there is only one survey per address. What if you and your housemate(s) disagree on any of the answers? Again, there is no way to allow for that variation. That approach might work in some circumstances, but it certainly doesn’t here.
Some will understand that KISS should be the operative principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The Ashland Chronicle is preparing an alternate survey that will demonstrate how the questions could have been phrased: simple preferences. It will be an informal survey, and we will not pretend that it will be statistically valid. But it will surely yield more valid insight into taxpayers’ preferences than the SOURCE survey.
The Additional Monthly Charges
Where do these numbers come from? How were they derived? We’ve already seen that the basic multiplier is wrong.
How much will “Transfer state-law criminal cases from the Ashland Municipal Court to Jackson County” save?
How about “Reduce or eliminate citizen committees and commissions”? How much does the city spend on them?
How much money will “Regionalize Police, Fire and Ambulance to save on administrative overhead costs” save? There’s clearly no way to tell.
How did they quantify “Reduce street maintenance by 15%”? How will that be achieved? Reducing personnel, materials, work hours? What will the practical effect be on our streets?
Without full background information and discussion, respondents cannot understand what they are really “voting” for. And that information is likely impossible to provide for scenarios like this.
The Actual Choices are Far Too Vague
What does this mean? “Reduce Parks and Rec community outreach (including advisory groups and marketing) and administrative expenses to lower costs.” How much would it save?
What about this: “Maintain neighborhood or dog friendly parks by volunteers or contributions”?
And this: “Delay or reduce future capital improvement projects (examples include streets, parks improvements, drainage, sidewalks, and right of way”? Is there ANY conceivable way to quantify that?
Some of the Options are Not Feasible
Every single choice that includes the word “delay” needs to be stricken. Delaying is not saving anything. It’s just kicking the can down the road.
That is exactly what got the City of Ashland into this mess: not dealing with problems as they arose. Deferred maintenance always comes due sooner or later, and when it’s later, it’s often far more expensive.
Parks and Rec Spending is Not on the Table—Just Funding
As Michael Black defiantly repeats at every opportunity, APRC decides where to spend the money that the city appropriates to APR—the Council and City Manager have NO SAY in how they spend their money.
So why discuss specifics? The real question about APR is “how much does the city need to reduce their funding”… period. You can forget the specifics, because they will do as they please.
Parks funding will have to be cut, no matter what. We love our parks, but they are not “essential” like police, fire, utilities, and infrastructure. And APR has demonstrated time and again that it is NOT a careful steward of our tax monies.
Where Are All of the Other Potential Savings?
This is the most egregious omission of all. There is NO mention of:
- Increasing efficiency / reducing waste
- Modifying compensation packages
- Reducing staffing
- Reducing consulting (like this survey!)
We are being presented false choices. There ARE other options.
The Bottom Line
This survey presents 14 arbitrary scenarios, none of which would likely be followed. The statistical analysis is supposed to isolate citizen’s preferences from these questions, but that is very unlikely, as described above.
Eight scenarios increase fees to the taxpayers, and six result in no change to fees, but a reduction in services. That is the major flaw with this survey: the assumption that either fees must be raised, or services must be cut.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many ways for the city to tighten up its spending which would not result in draconian cuts to services.
Box 14 says the quiet part right out loud: “The City Council and City Manager determine how to cut spending. This would mean reductions in city services as proposed in the other survey boxes or other reductions that they identify.” That is not true. Reductions would NOT necessarily have to follow—there are other options.
Box 14 is correct, however, in that the Council and the City Manager WILL be the ones who make the decisions. This survey cannot be much help for them in determining what to do, because it doesn’t address the issue in a meaningful way.
It’s time to cut our losses on this experiment. Let us not throw any more good money after bad. Pay SOURCE for its efforts, but DO NOT print and distribute and tabulate the survey. Eliminating “printing and stuffing” and “postage and mailing” should save the city over $12,000.
It’s time for this Council, dominated by what some consider an irresponsible majority of four, to do what’s best for the city. It’s time for them to make some tough decisions. If they can’t or won’t do it, we will all pay for their failure.
But make no mistake: November is coming, and we MUST elect three new Councilors who understand fiscal responsibility. Ashland’s future is riding on effective action, and the current Council majority has demonstrated time and again that they are not capable of doing what needs to be done.
Please write to the councilors at email@example.com and tell them to abandon this misguided endeavor.