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Ashland's budget could rise to more than $100 million

City departments have requested additional funding for more full-time employees, at a cost of &

36;600,000 in salaries and benefits

ASHLAND ' Rising costs and new construction projects could push the city's annual budget beyond &

36;100 million next fiscal year.

City staff have proposed a nearly &

36;101.5 million budget for the 2006-07 funding cycle, which starts in July. That amount is almost &

36;10.3 million more than the current budget.

The budget could go still higher.

The &

36;101.5 million figure does not include a list of suggested added personnel and projects. For example, the Ashland Police Department is requesting three new patrol officers, another detective and the increase of a half-time computer technician position to full time.

The Ashland Community Development Department wants to add another planner.

Consultants hired to study the two departments reported that they are understaffed.

All together, city departments have requested additional funding for the equivalent of 9.5 new full-time employees at a cost of &

36;600,000 in added salaries, wages and benefits.

Funding is included in the budget proposal for two other employees, a new utility worker and a forest wildland-urban interface coordinator who was previously funded through a short-term grant.

It will be up to the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee to decide whether to fund the unbudgeted positions and projects.

The committee ' seven residents, six Ashland City Councilors and the mayor ' met to hear the budget message from Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg on Thursday night.

This has been one of the most difficult budgets for me to put together, said Tuneberg, who has almost three decades of experience as a municipal finance officer.

A number of variables, such as the Ashland Fiber Network's uncertain future and personnel transitions in several top city staff positions, made developing the budget difficult.

Additionally, the city is being hit with escalating gas, construction and retirement benefit costs, Tuneberg said.

The Citizens' Budget Committee previously asked that the property tax rate for the city remain unchanged.

Tuneberg, City Administrator Gino Grimaldi and other city staff members developed a budget that meets that goal, but does not allow for the additional staffing.

Other items that the Citizens' Budget Committee must consider include &

36;100,000 for consultants to work with residents to develop a community vision plan.

Mayor John Morrison, who highlighted the need for such a plan in his annual State of the City address in January, said the council has repeatedly postponed funding for the project.

We have tremendous differences in this community and with where we should be going. The practical fact is that it costs us money everyday, Morrison said, noting, for example, that the legal department spends time responding to residents upset by planning decisions.

I see it as something that allows us to become a more efficient government, the mayor said.

However, Councilman Russ Silbiger said the community vision plan is not one of his priorities. He reminded the resident members who are new to the committee that part of their job is to provide a balance to the goals adopted by council majorities.

Other unfunded items include the development of a Public Arts Master Plan for about &

36;10,000, creation of a temporary Economic Development Commission to craft an economic development plan for the city at a cost of approximately &

36;2,000 and buying aerial firefighting equipment for &

36;900,000 that could be used to stop the spread of a fire from large buildings.

Adding the personnel, projects and equipment to the budget would increase property taxes and fees.

Without the additions, property taxes would stand at &

36;5.30 per &

36;1,000 of assessed value for the city general fund, the parks and recreation department and the Youth Activities Levy.

That translates to &

36;1,060 for the owner of a home assessed at &

36;200,000 (assessed value is significantly less than the market value).

If every unbudgeted staff position, project and equipment purchase were approved by the Citizens' Budget Committee and all were funded through property taxes alone, the rate would increase by roughly 95 cents per &

36;1,000 in assessed value, or &

36;190 for the owner of a home assessed at &

36;200,000.

The committee gave unanimous initial approval to the city administration and legal department budget on Thursday night ' without the addition of any unfunded positions.

They will prioritize the requests for added personnel, projects and equipment at the end of the weeks-long budgeting process and decide which, if any, to fund.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456.