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City departments tapped to pay AFN debt

Other city departments will have to help pay off the Ashland Fiber Network's $15.5 million debt.

In a close vote, an Ashland City Council majority decided AFN must pay what it can toward the debt.

Additionally, money will come from the general fund and the water, sewage and electric departments to make next fiscal year's $1.06 million debt payment.

The City Council cut some spending and raised property taxes to make this fiscal year's payment.

With the new method, city departments will have to cut costs, reduce services and/or pass on higher rates and fees, Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg warned.

But he said it was the best way to address the debt.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said the approach requires fiscal responsibility because city departments will have to constrain their spending in order to give money for AFN debt payments.

But newly elected Councilor Eric Navickas said utility rates will eventually go up, hurting low and middle-income residents.

"It seems to me to be a regressive tax that's hidden in internal fees," he said.

In 2005, the City Council rescinded a $7.50 monthly fee on utility bills after a community outcry.

Silbiger, Councilor Kate Jackson, Councilor David Chapman and Mayor John Morrison voted for AFN and other city departments to pay AFN's debt. Navickas, Councilor Alice Hardesty and Councilor Cate Hartzell voted against the funding method.

After construction on AFN began in the late 1990s, the enterprise sank into debt after build-out costs were higher than expected. AFN also offered below-cost cable television services in the face of stiff competition.

AFN transferred operations of the money-losing television service to a private company in fall 2006.

In other business Tuesday night, Navickas, Jackson, Hardesty and Chapman were sworn in as councilors after winning election or reelection in November 2006.

During the oath, Navickas swore to uphold the laws of the United State, Oregon and Ashland. But in a short speech, he said he is concerned about the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and other federal acts passed during the George W. Bush administration.

"I will continue to show dissent to laws that undermine our Constitutional rights," he said, to a burst of applause from some audience members.

Navickas has been arrested several times for protesting the cutting of trees for timber or to make way for construction projects. He has opposed the proposed expansion of the Mt. Ashland Ski Snowboard Resort in court.

Navickas said he had no comment about whether he was reserving an option to engage in civil disobedience to fight any tree cutting for the expansion.

As she was being sworn in, Hardesty said she shares Navickas's concerns about the Patriot Act.

New Municipal Judge Pam Burkholder Turner and new Parks and Recreation Commissioner Melody Noraas were also sworn into office, along with Parks Commissioner Rich Rosenthal, who was reelected.

Additionally, Morrison delivered his annual "State of the City" address.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.