Ashland taxes and fees up again; more to come
If you were hoping our city officials would begin to prioritize and control Ashland’s spending during the budget process this year, you must be sorely disappointed.
Despite a valiant attempt by a few members of the Budget Committee who outlined some practical budget cuts, the City Council approved raising our property taxes to the maximum allowed by law and increasing water and electric rates by about 8% over the 2019/21 biennium. This is on top of an almost 100% increase in our overall budget and soaring utility rates and fees.
According to our mayor (and other current and former city officials), our fiscal problems stem from rising PERS and health care costs for city employees, making it beyond anyone’s control. This makes as much sense as gaining two pounds and then blaming the waitperson for bringing you the piece of banana cream pie that you ordered and ate.
We only have a big problem with PERS and health care costs because we have one employee for every 78 Ashland citizens or three times the average of Oregon cities above 10,000 in population; the state average for these cities is 1 employee for every 234 citizens.
Why so many employees? Because over the years, our city officials opted to take over or keep control of all utilities and other services that are normally outsourced e.g. electricity, fiber network, ambulance service, golf course, etc. The answer is to start outsourcing/privatizing these operations, eliminate other functions that add little measurable value and get the number of Ashland employees back to some reasonable level. If you’re worried about the impact to the city, only 1 in 4 city employees actually lives in Ashland.
Also contributing to PERS costs are high salaries. The top 10 city positions average $220,000 in total compensation and 63% of Ashland employees earn over $100,000 in total compensation annually. If we eliminated management positions by consolidating departments and flattening the organization (Ashland is very top-heavy), we would realize significant additional savings on future PERS obligations.
The elimination of six rank-and-file, unfilled positions was a feeble attempt at cost control. Because our mayor and council failed to prioritize spending, more taxes and fees are their only option. The mayor, on the recommendation of Councilor Rich Rosenthal, formed a special committee to investigate yet new revenue sources, i.e. new ways to tax citizens, tourists and businesses. Once implemented, the mayor indicated, at least two of those positions will be reinstated — we predict all six.
They again approved more capital outlays then they can spend and justified the increases by approving a public works master plan totaling a quarter of a billion dollars. This is about $23,000 for every household. How are Ashlanders going to pay for that? We can expect higher taxes and utility rates for sure.
During the budget process, several citizen budget members and one councilor presented ways to reduce costs, thus eliminating the need for new taxes. Not only didn’t they have the opportunity to present all the ideas, the ideas that were presented were voted down.
Why? Because of the false narratives articulated by most on the council: (1) Ashland citizens demand the services that our city officials continually vote for and (2) right-sizing our budget would mean an unacceptable reduction in services the city provides.
Current and past mayors and councils have made poor assumptions and decisions that have gotten us into the disastrous financial position we are in today. If you care at all about the future viability of our city, you will get involved, write letters, attend/speak at study sessions and council meetings and vote for city officials who are committed to prioritizing spending and right-sizing the Ashland budget.
Garrett Furuichi is a member of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability.