Confronting Ashland's budget crisis
Nothing has changed in Ashland over the last 10 years, yet our budget has nearly doubled.
Our population hasn’t grown, the business community has been stagnant. Nor have the services provided to our citizens changed either; back then we had AFN, water and electric utilities, parks, a water treatment plant and everything else that makes Ashland unique and special.
Channel 5 news recently ran a story on proposed cuts and rate increases in Ashland, and in that interview Kelly Madding, our city administrator, said, “The deficit they find themselves in is due to factors beyond their control. It’s due to the public employees retirement system. It’s due to an increase in health care cost.” While I agree with Kelly that PERS and health coverage are certainly factors, the real demon has been spending without regard for goals and priorities over the last 10 years.
PERS and health care are a huge problem first because we have one employee for every 78 people while the average across the state is one for every 234. While elected officials in other communities anticipated these benefit problems and were paring back staff by consolidating, outsourcing or privatizing, we did nothing.
Secondly, our salaries seem unsustainably high. In the budget recently presented, 70% of 268 city employees make over $100,000 in total compensation, which is two to three times the median income for an Ashland family. The top 10 staff average $220,000 in total compensation.
I outline this not to call Kelly out or to embarrass her, as she had no role in creating the financial crisis we find ourselves in today. I bring it up to stress that the job of this committee as we begin the process of deliberation on this budget is to find a way out of this financial trouble. Citizens have charged all of us with building a budget that stays within our means, just as they have to.
It is essential that we regain the trust of the community we serve. No more rate hikes, surcharges or surprise fees would be a great initial step.
At least in this budget, the finance director recognized the need to cut spending, but unfortunately these cuts are not substantial enough to have any real impact. We must get serious. Let’s not cut rank-and-file staff but rather address management positions and salaries. We should outsource or look to privatize city services like ambulance services, the golf course or even electricity, sell non-producing land assets, use the expertise of the budget committee to help cut construction projects to only what is essential, put the $20 million in unrestricted fund balances to work to reduce the burden on citizens and eliminate projects and programs that can’t prove their benefit to the city through performance measures. There are many more other good ideas to consider as well.
I hope we all can agree that our goal is to ensure Ashland residents have a rightsized government for a city of 21,000, providing essential services at the lowest possible cost with the lowest possible taxes and other charges.
If we’re going to work collaboratively, we need to accept responsibility for making things better in the future. We need to show the people of Ashland their interests and welfare are our first priority. We have to do our job the best way we know how to put our city back on sound financial footing.
Shaun Moran is a member of the Ashland Budget Committee for the 2019-2021 budget.