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Setting the record straight

A former Ashland mayor appeared before the Budget Committee last week to tell them how well Ashland has managed the budget. The city has done a “fantastic job” and the deficit position they find themselves in is not their fault — it’s because of PERS.

I respectively, but vehemently, disagree on all counts. First, the crisis we find ourselves in isn’t because of PERS itself but because the city has such a large number of employees — one for every 78 citizens. The state average is one for every 234 citizens — and that’s an average. So, of course the city is experiencing huge PERS hits.

Why do we have so many employees per capita? Because our leaders over the years have decided to not outsource or privatize city functions/operations the way most other cities do. We have our own everything including an electric division which not only costs us in terms of additional people and benefits (PERS and health care) but our household electric bills are higher than elsewhere, e.g., Talent.

Until the late ’90s, we could have hooked up to Medford’s sewage treatment operation, resulting in lower costs for our community. But, of course, we didn’t, and now it’s too late. The Sneak Preview editor recently said, “Since 1992 we have spent $54 million just to maintain the wastewater treatment plant and that’s not counting how much it cost for the upgrade ... probably the most financially irresponsible decision this city has ever made”.

We have our own fiber network which struggled for many years and even today we must pay off a remaining $7 million in debt. We have our own ambulance service which is run by the fire department. Only four out of every 100 calls are actually for fires, and their budget has increased 45% over the past six years. We have our own golf course, which has run a deficit of $1.7 million over the past 10 years. We manage almost all of the city’s capital improvement projects, which will top $250 million by 2039 — $12.5 million per year.

Ergo, Ashland has three times as many employees as the average city in Oregon. If Ashland had been fiscally well-managed, most or all of these operations would be outsourced. Our elected officials are completely and wholly responsible for what has transpired; who else would be? They’ve known for years that every city employee will translate into escalating PERS and health care costs.

If our current mayor and council had been doing a “fantastic” job, over the past 10 years, our budget wouldn’t have doubled to almost the same size as Medford’s, a city with four times our population. We wouldn’t have a deficit. Our utility rates wouldn’t be up over 150% for water/sewer and almost 50% for electricity with additional 4% rate increases on both scheduled for this coming July. We wouldn’t have $49 million in CIP cash balances, $20 million of it unspecified, while at the same time the council is proposing 1) a tax levy for the November ballot to get around property tax limits and 2) a monthly increase of over $7 on the public safety fee in our utility bill. This would bring our base cost before using a drop of water or kilowatt of electricity to almost $100 a month.

I’m not sure what universe our current and past city leaders live in, but I live in Ashland, Oregon, where I suffer the dire consequences of their actions along with my fellow citizens.

Kenneth Wilson lives in Ashland.

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