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Citizen committee recommends two-year budget

Ashland's Citizens Budget Committee recommended approval Monday night for a two-year, $285,832,964 budget.

Budget Committee Chair David Runkel pointed out his concerns, saying the budget represents an increase in spending of nearly 18 percent despite the fact that the budget is reportedly balanced, according to the city’s finance office.

But Runkel maintains it was done on the backs of taxpayers.

“Balance is obtained as a result of huge increases in tax revenues and utility rates,” he said.

However, no tax increases nor utility fee increases were passed Monday night.

Previous increases to wastewater treatment charges, storm drain, water, parking and court fines add up to just under $7 million in increases, according to Runkel, who also sees the possibility the city will increase electric charges by $2.5 million and impose additional taxes of $4.5 million.

“That’s imposing more than $12 million in additional taxes, fees and other charges — that’s $570 per year for every man, woman and child in Ashland,” Runkel said.

Those utility rate increases and taxes may occur later when City Council meets.

The committee approved the hiring of additional staff but created revenue for the positions or asked staff to come back with recommendations for funding without increasing taxes.

The budget included a person to direct the city’s effort at honoring the Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP) developed by citizens, which regulates Ashland’s efforts to seek renewable energy and address climate change; an ombudsman to facilitate developers seeking licensing and approval; and a recommendation to use the city’s taxes on cannabis to prop up the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which has not seen new funding since its establishment in 2008.

The director of CEAP is to be funded through revenue in the current budget, the ombudsman position is to be paid for by increasing permit fees by .01 percent, pulling fees from the economic development budget and central service fees within the city.

“I think this position is long overdue. Chasing down permits can be difficult,” said City Councilor Mike Morris, who made the proposal. He suggested to the committee that Ashland’s difficulty in getting permits processed turns builders off and ultimately costs the city money.

The committee stopped short of increasing property taxes or utility rates, despite frequent heated exchanges about doing so.

A proposal toward the end of the night made by Councilor Traci Darrow would have raised property taxes by 9 cents per $1,000 in assessed value to create roughly $220,000 in revenue for the Ashland Police Department. The motion failed.

The cost to hire five new officers as approved by the council is somewhere around $550,000, but the increase in taxes would get the budget halfway there. The committee declined to do it, so the question of how and whether the city will fund the hiring of new police officers remains unanswered.

Several ideas were put forward, such as taking some $360,000 out of the economic and business development grant given to the Chamber of Commerce, pulling the money budgeted for the East Nevada Street Bridge and cutting back on city health care costs for workers, who currently pay 5 percent, but none of the proposals were approved.

Some suggestions, such as increasing employee health care costs, were met with outrage.

“This is wildly irresponsible and crazy. You don’t dismantle a health insurance plan,” said Mayor John Stromberg of the proposal.

Questions that remain will be settled by City Council, such as how to pay for more police and the new CEAP director and how much revenue will be generated from cannabis taxes for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Citizens Budget Committee member Sal Amery asked the council to be prudent in its methods going forward. “There’s a lot to spend on these projects, and we have to be more sensible. Where will we be if there’s a crisis in two years?”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.