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Look at priorities

As usual, I appreciate Shaun Moran’s commitment to achieving financial sustainability for our beautiful and unique city (guest opinion, May 8). I particularly agree with his comment, “... the real demon has been spending without regard for goals and priorities over the last 10 years.”

By definition, not everything can be a priority at the same time. When communities develop strategic plans that claim this is possible, they may satisfy a broad group of constituents, but they have not prepared a procedure that can be used for difficult policy choices, which the city is now facing with its deficit. A top priority for one area inevitably means that other areas will be a second priority at best. But what are those priorities?

Though I did not watch the interview with city administrator Kelly Madding, I found the reported argument she gave that Ashland’s budget deficit can be attributed primarily to rising health care costs and PERS not satisfactory. (Concerning PERS, it might be time to look at how other countries like Canada can have a stable retirement fund that is not a burden to their taxpayers). If the city had a list of priorities in its strategic plan, then Madding could have mentioned what projects might have to be scaled back based on citizen preferences. However, since we do not have community-based measurements that tell us what the priorities of citizens are, city officials cannot list them.

Even with cities with the same tax level, their priorities are most likely to be different. A city with a large number of retirees usually wants more tax dollars going to public safety and elder centers, while the priorities of young families might be more programs for children. Information provided in locally chosen indicators of priorities can help us make choices. To have these broader indicators forces public decision makers to examine how their actions reflect specific community goals. It will also help elected officials to break away from the demands of special-interest pleadings and respond to inconsistent voter demands to cut our taxes but at the same time increase spending on education as an example.

Moran emphasizes the need for budget cuts or “consolidating, outsourcing or privatizing” as a way to deal with the deficit. But I believe what is more important first is to get specific information about citizens priorities. As mentioned, the way to do this is by developing comprehensive indicators of what are the priorities of Ashland residents that encompass their economic, environment and society goals. Citizens should have significant control over their local economic development path.

It is clear that Ashlanders care deeply to have a community that supports quality of life and sustainability. And its citizens might be willing to provide all the resources needed for public safety, education, social services, parks and open space, cultural activities and transportation. Or they might not and have other priorities. We need to find out what those priorities are.

Richard Holt is a professor of economics at Southern Oregon University.