The city of Ashland is at it again, and it's got to stop
The saga of Ashland city government is like a thriller/horror movie where each time you think the monster is dead, it comes roaring back to life. It’s Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction rising up out of the bathtub water after she’s been drowned, ready to strike again.
The citizens of Ashland rallied earlier this year to kill the idea of building a $13 million to $19 million brand-new City Hall somewhere. Instead, the council agreed, or so we thought, to focus once again on the original safety concern — seismically retrofitting our downtown City Hall, estimated at $1.75 million back in 2016.
But the council recently voted to spend $7 million to raze our beautiful, historic downtown building to the ground and rebuild. If not bad enough, a tax levy will be on the ballot for it. City projects have typically come in double, triple, even quadruple original estimates, so the final price tag will be much more. Authorizing $470,000 for design fees in addition to the $300,000 already spent, the city asked for plans to remain flexible to consider adding a story or even developing other sites for a brand-new city hall elsewhere. The monster rises again.
There’s no justification for a new or expanded City Hall. Our population and business community haven’t grown in the past 10 years and projections for growth are nonexistent. We already have one city employee for every 78 citizens versus the state average of one for every 234 in cities our size. We’ve spent millions on IT/technology to enhance productivity, reducing reliance on staff. Councilor Dennis Slattery, currently heading up a cost-cutting committee, is looking to find ways to reduce staff (and thus PERS and health care costs) through privatizing/outsourcing some services and other measures.
Why spend $650-plus per square foot to house staff we will never hire and surely don’t need? If more room is needed for some reason, why have we never seriously considered moving billing clerks who take up 25% of the square footage to a less expensive location? Why are we even talking about an expanded or new City Hall when we have a structural budget deficit and have maxed-out property taxes?
Normal people repair things with as little cost as possible. Not the policy-makers of Ashland. They spend endless amounts of your tax dollars to make it brand-new. That’s why we’re looking at a 20-year, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar capital improvement plan approved by the city.
Consider the $18 million new water treatment plant which became $36 million this year (the final cost will be much more). We could alternatively renovate the current plant, i.e. fix just the parts that need fixing. If more water is needed, we can buy additional rights from Lost Creek reservoir and renegotiate our TAP contract with the Medford Water Commission. Having already invested $13 million in TAP, this would ensure water security for Ashland’s future at half the cost.
Another recent example from George Kramer involves the Winburn Way Community Center. Kramer posted on Facebook:
“After an electrician installed a light incorrectly and it fell, the city commissioned a $40,000 architectural study of the building to assess its safety, instead of just calling an electrician. The study found the north wall of the building out of plane. The city declared the building a hazard and estimated $400,000-plus for its repair.
But, this is a wood framed building, very resilient and fairly easy to repair. Someone using a series of come-alongs, or threaded rods or even a backhoe could pull or push the north wall back into plane and then tie it off at attic level with plywood plates/gussets and Simpson-type clamps costing in total about $50,000. The Community Center could then quickly re-open to serve the public.
“But that low-tech, cost-effective solution wouldn’t get you and I to pay for all the other deferred maintenance and upgrades and it wouldn’t give the city the chance to join this project for financing to a far less supportable City Hall replacement.”
Unfortunately, there are countless examples of the city’s irresponsible fiscal behavior. The citizens of Ashland did recently come together to successfully defeat the unjustifiable $5 million canal piping project — ripping out 77% of the canal in good/fair condition along with the 23% in bad shape. We thank Councilors Julie Akins, Stefani Seffinger and Slattery and Mayor John Stromberg for voting no. But we hear that the city will be resurrecting this project soon. The monster rises again.
The excessive and unsustainable spending has got to stop. Ashlanders, we must finally elect more city leaders who take these issues seriously in 2020.
Susan T. Wilson is treasurer of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability.