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Councilors identify budget priorities

The Ashland City Council struck a noticeably conciliatory tone on Thursday in its latest budget meeting in preparation for a full budget-setting session for 2017-2019 with the Citizens Budget Committee.

The council had been working to narrow down its top priorities and attach funding for those items prior to finalizing its two-year budget with the Citizens Budget Committee as mandated by Oregon law.

At times the process had been contentious with Citizens Committee Chair Dave Runkle questioning if the council’s process was legal, given its decision to hire five new police officers prior to passage of a budget. However, the City Council stopped short of funding the positions and, once again on Thursday, did not vote to fund the officers or determine funding of any of its priorities until the full budget committee meets.

Council considered raising the city’s electric rates by $7.33 per month for the "typical" customer to offset increases in cost of the power it buys from the Bonneville Power Administration, as well as personnel costs and continuing to pay off the debt for the Ashland Fiber Network.

But on Tuesday they ultimately did not pass the increase in electric utilities, instead deciding to wait until a full two-year budget is passed. Councilor Rich Rosenthal lamented that the increase would drive prices higher than in neighboring communities. “It would be the first time our electric rates would be higher than Pacific Power.”

Council also did not pass a measure to increase utility rates, which would be a part of the other increase considered, to fund five new police officers as had been discussed as an option.

Instead, now, it is looking for other possible revenue streams such as Marijuana Tax revenue from the state which is earmarked for police or considering a nine cent increase in property taxes which would have to be approved by the citizens budget committee.

“We have to get their permission legally to assess these extra nine cents, that’s Oregon law. We’re going to need to determine what we need those nine cents for. It might be to fund those police officers. I don’t know,” said Councilor Dennis Slattery.

In the end, the council stated its top priorities for funding as police staffing, rebuilding the city’s reserve fund, creating a position to implement the Climate Energy Action Plan and hiring a person to act as a liaison for community development.

Councilors did not fund the priorities, but instead agreed they would bring them forward for consideration.

There had also been strong feelings about creating a revenue stream for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but Councilor Slattery suggested that could not be done until the Housing Commission outlined its priorities for spending first. It did not make the cut of the council’s top priorities on Thursday but is likely to re-emerge.

“I want to make one final pitch — I do think the housing trust fund needs to be a priority whether through the property tax or marijuana tax,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who was echoed by Rosenthal and Councilor Traci Darrow. “It seems the council has set its priorities. The Affordable Housing Trust fund is on there. I think there has to be a funding stream and it’s set for only one year. This is a two-year budget and it needs to be set for both years.”

Meantime, members of the Citizens Budget Committee are not feeling the change in tone as of yet.

They remain distressed about what they claim is a lack of ability to obtain information from city staff in order to prepare recommendations. Budget committee member Shaun Moran said he and other members have requested city staff compensation details but have been met with foot dragging. “The city has said that’s not in the purview of the budget committee, but it’s the largest component of the budget. How can you tell me to approve a budget without 70 percent of the budget detail?”

Moran acknowledges hiring decisions are not up to the committee, but he would like to see the detail in conjunction with the rest of the budget for consideration. “I just want the facts and transparency. Why is it a fight to get anything?”

Moran says the cost of personnel is the largest chunk of the budget, which he characterizes as growing faster than any other costs.

“Since 2008 (the budget has) gone from $95 million per year to $142 million,” said Moran. “That’s $47.9 million or a 50.42 percent increase.” Moran says he believes it’s the largest government the city’s had with some 220 employees.

Meantime councilors have agreed that, outside of setting priorities, they would not vote on specific revenue streams without considering the entire budget and the citizens committee recommendations first.

The full session of the budget committee including the council and the citizens committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, May 11, in council chambers at 1175 East Main St., Ashland.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.