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Ashland voters should decide future of city parks

Ashland Parks and Recreation Department funding is back in the news, and the usual suspects have lined up on opposite sides of the Parks Commission’s latest attempt to return to the autonomy the independently elected body once enjoyed. Ultimately, Ashland voters will decide the future of the city’s park system, which is the appropriate resolution of the present debate.

First, a little history: In 1908, the city charter established an elected body to develop and manage parks, and designated a parks property tax of up to $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed value to fund it.

In the 1990s, voters statewide approved two property tax limitation ballot measures. In the fine print of the initiatives was language that ended all dedicated tax levies for city and county operations and rolled them into the general fund. At the county level, this affected the Jackson County Historical Society and the library system. In Ashland, it affected the Parks Commission.

This led to tension between the City Council and the elected Parks Commission over how much money should be allocated for parks. The historic $2.09 rate was reduced to $1.89, and the Parks Department was left to compete with all other city departments for its share of the money allocated by the city Budget Committee.

The Parks Commission has voted to pursue a local tax levy that would restore the $2.09 rate. Ultimately, the commission wants to create a taxing district separate from the city’s general fund. Both would require voter approval.

The commission has asked the City Council to place the levy request on the May ballot when it meets next week. If the council refuses, the commission could proceed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot itself.

Predictably, the self-appointed budget experts who keep tabs on city spending have accused parks commissioners of pulling an end run around the budget process. “Who do they think they are,” the critics say. “Do they not understand that budgets must be cut when resources are not sufficient to meet needs?”

Of course they do. The commission has made cuts in its budget, including reducing staff.

The reality is, the Parks Commission is asking for a return to the way things were until 1997. The commissioners are betting that the city’s parks and other recreation offerings are important enough to voters that they will want to support them directly with their tax dollars.

The City Council has signaled that it is not inclined to grant the commission’s request before completing a conversation with the community about all city services that depend on the general fund. Until that happens, Councilor Tonya Graham said in a letter, the city doesn’t have enough information put a levy on the ballot.

What’s really happening here is a power struggle between two elected bodies with shared authority over one city department. If the City Council wants to control the purse strings for parks, it should ask voters to change the city charter and dissolve the elected Parks Commission. It makes little sense to elect people to run the parks system but limit their authority.

It makes more sense to ask voters to create a separate taxing district for parks and remove its budget from the general fund. If voters are unwilling to do that, then they should be asked if they still want to elect parks commissioners or make the positions appointed.

For another point of view on this issue, see the guest opinion on this page.