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Opinion on city budget was inaccurate, damaging

A recent guest opinion offered several facts about the budget recently approved by the Ashland City Council that are simply false. Some of those inaccuracies are corrected below, but the bigger issue is how we approach the work of governing ourselves, especially in a small town like Ashland.

Unfortunately, a narrative has been whipped up in our community over the past couple of years that goes something like this:

The city of Ashland is bloated because it’s government, and government is inherently wasteful.

The City Council is all about maintaining the “status quo,” so it approves every expense put in front of it without considering the impacts on individual residents.

The city is poorly managed and can’t be trusted with the public purse.

None of this is true.

What is true is that the city has been in an ever-tightening financial vise since emerging from the Great Recession. The driver of this problem is that some expenses (health insurance, PERS unfunded liabilities for retired employees, increasing regulatory needs, etc.) are rising faster than the 3% increase that is allowed annually in our property taxes. In response, staff have been innovating and cutting costs for years in order to maintain city programs.

These systemic issues have created a structural shortfall in our General Fund budget (covers police, fire, parks, and planning) that has been growing over the past few budget cycles. City staff and elected officials agree that it needs to be addressed — the question is how. Should we have slashed the budget and community programs this past spring without any conversation with the community? Or should we engage Ashlanders over the next nine months to prioritize our shared goals and reflect them in the budget?

I chose the second option, which is why I voted for the budget. The budget just passed by the council covers two fiscal years and provides funding for year one with the understanding that we will work with the community to decide what long-term changes to make and start implementing those changes in year two of the budget. This will set us up for long-term financial resilience.

We have 15 additional study sessions already scheduled to do this important work and are developing a community engagement effort. Through this process, residents will be able to roll up their sleeves and help city staff and elected officials identify programs to cut and/or new revenue sources so that the city can provide the services most important to Ashlanders.

There are many inaccuracies in the previous guest opinion, but only room here to correct a few.

The resources needed for this biennial budget are not $348 million over two years. The budget is $264 million. The $348 million figure includes ending fund balances — money left at the end of one fiscal year heading into the new one. Saying the budget is $348 million when it is $264 million is telling residents that the city’s budget is 30% larger than it actually is.

City departments are generally reducing staff costs even though the numbers in the latest budget are higher than the 2019-20 actuals. The city made many short-term staffing adjustments to save money during the pandemic, which lowered the actual expenses for 2019-20. Many of those positions are essential in the long term or have been left in the current budget, but will remain unfilled until strategic decisions are made about the city’s long-term needs.

The previous guest opinion indicated that taxpayers were paying for senior city staff to get to work. Not so. As an employer, the city is required to provide on-the-job transportation necessary to do the job or to compensate the employee for providing their own transportation. The city provides either vehicles or stipends of between $350 and $400 per month for department heads. This approach costs $70,000 over two years and is the least expensive option. Travel stipends have absolutely nothing to do with getting an employee to and from work.

City staff, with approval of the council, managed their way through a biennial budget covering two unprecedented emergencies. Because they took a scalpel to the financial management effort rather than a machete, we have come out the other side having saved roughly $3.8 million in our previous budget while maintaining the services that protect the health and wellbeing of our residents.

In this budget process, our very able staff have charted a course for the city to become financially resilient. They are dedicated, hardworking professionals, and they deserve to be treated with respect.

Our constituents want us to maintain high-quality essential services and provide other important programs while prudently managing the public purse. When inaccurate information is shared by elected officials to shore up the narrative that the city is in shambles, it damages staff morale and faith in local government. We can’t afford either in these challenging times.

Our community needs us to work together, not tear each other apart, as we build the Ashland of the future. That starts with a commitment by elected officials to share accurate information and approach challenges in a spirit of collaboration.

Tonya Graham is a member of the Ashland City Council.