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City, citizen budget members work to improve transparency

The city of Ashland has published an interactive spreadsheet that would help citizens navigate and better understand the city’s budget in its effort to improve transparency, staff reported to the council Tuesday.

The tool, essentially an Excel document that users can modify and adjust, lays out the city’s current budget, its projected growth percentage in revenues and expenses of the next seven years, and a snapshot of the city’s general fund since 2006.

Finance Department also provides the same tool for parks department's budget — the budget containing a projected deficit that was cited recently as a reason to launch a recall election.

“We hope that by providing the model, we can help create a productive assumption of our budget going forward,” Finance Director Mark Welch told the council Tuesday in his report about the projection errors in the city's budget.

The tool was published after the city confirmed errors in its financial projections in the budget, which showed a $5.9 million projected deficit in parks department and a $10 million projected deficit in general fund by the 2021-23 biennium (the budget year runs from July 1 to June 30). The corrected 2021-23 projected deficits are $585,000 for parks and $2.3 million for the city’s general fund, Welch said.

Allocations for the current 2017-19 biennium are not affected, he added.

He indicated that the new tool, along with the OpenGov project, will also help with transparency and assist citizens to better navigate the city’s budget.

After a “chaotic” budget season where citizen members — make up of half the committee — felt they were “shut down” by the city, transparency emerged as one of several issues citizen members said need to be addressed.

While the city decided to form an ad hoc budget process committee, schedule off-season meetings and, this week, published a tool to help the public navigate the city’s financial state, citizen Budget Committee members and the public are also taking steps.

Budget Committee Chairperson Dave Runkel and Vice-chairperson Garrett Furuichi hosted an informal informational meeting last Thursday. Roughly 30 people crammed in a small room in the basement of Ashland Public Library where many asked how to hold the city accountable, and other quesions, including:

• “How do we compare the budgets year by year?”

• “If a department head receives monthly report, is that off limits? Can I request it?”

• “Do you have any influence in this process?”

Furuichi, also a member of the ad hoc budget process committee and a former city financial staffer in San Francisco, said he was encouraged by the turnout on March 1.

He urged those in attendance to familiarize themselves with the budget and ask for documents “if something is off.”

“Talk to us, we’ll help you go through the budget file for records,” Furuichi said.

He added that citizen members and the public don’t have a direct say on how to spend money, but policy that could dictate spending “is something citizens could influence.”

Furuichi also gave a brief presentation of how to read the budget — what the key components of the city’s expenditures are and how the lack of a breakdown line items made it harder for the members to pinpoint how money was spent.

Furuichi also struck a chord with the participants when he presented a declining graph of the cost recovery at the city’s golf course. Cost recovery at the course dropped from 97 percent in 2005 to 52 percent in 2017, resulting in a loss of $1.7 million, according to Furuichi’s calculation.

“What is driving this huge loss? … What will the city do to improve these programs? That’s what we need to ask,” he said.

Runkel also said he’s impressed with the turnout and the thoughtful questions.

“We have a good group of people, but we need a deeper bench,” Runkel said. “I want to build the capacity up in the community.”

Erroneous projections will be reviewed by the Budget Committee on March 19, Welch said. The meeting is also scheduled to include discussion of reports on the biennium second quarter financials and capital improvement projects.

 — Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com.