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Tax hike will pay for police officers

The Ashland City Council, deeply divided over whether to raise property taxes by the maximum 9 cents allowed or not at all, split the difference after Mayor John Stromberg broke a 3-3 tie.

The council decided Friday to raise taxes by 4.5 cents per $1,000 in assessed value in part to fund five new police officers.

The move was met with contention both from the assembled audience, many of whom spoke, and councilors themselves.

“I voted against the budget,” said budget committee member Shaun Moran, who has criticized the process as lacking transparency. Moran said a vote to raise taxes after the budget committee failed to do so “would be unprecedented.”

Paula Hyatt and Sal Amery, also budget committee members, told the council they would have voted no on the budget if they'd known a tax hike would be included.

Debbie Neiswander, an Ashland resident and home owner, said she opposed raising property taxes and the hiring of five more police officers at a cost of $550,000, claiming more officers were likely to disproportionately cite and contact the homeless.

“You call it community policing," Neiswander said. "I call it aggressive policing.”

At one point Councilor Greg Lemhouse threatened to leave, saying, “If this isn’t over in five minutes, I’m leaving. I don’t want to be here one more minute than I have to.” Stromberg responded, “It didn’t go the way you want so you’re leaving? That’s extreme.”

In the end, Lemhouse stayed and the business of approving the budget, complete with a property tax hike and an increase to the police budget, was forwarded to the state the night before its July 1 deadline.

Voting no were Dennis Slattery, Greg Lemhouse and Stefani Seffinger; yes votes came from Traci Darrow, Rich Rosenthal and Mike Morris.

All of the councilors said they favored adding new police officers to the Ashland Police Department as they had approved in April, but half did not want to do so by increasing property taxes, an item the Citizens Budget Committee voted against.

“I can’t support it in the strongest terms," said Lemhouse of going against the budget committee’s decision. "It’s a point we won’t be able to come back from.”

He was supported by Slattery, who raised the same concerns and suggested the $550,000 could be found somewhere in the city’s budget.

“I just can’t believe in this whole $285 million budget we can’t find the money,” he said, and suggested allowing more time to seek other funding sources rather than raising taxes.

Seffinger prefers raising utility rates as opposed to property taxes to pay for policing, while Morris concludes the opposite. “It’s more progressive to do it this way as opposed to utilities,” he said. Morris also said the 4.5 cent hike is a compromise.

Ultimately the increase will raise about $208,000, less than half the amount needed to fully fund five officers, according to city Director of Administrative Services Mark Welch. The rest of the money could come from state taxes on marijuana, of which Ashland will receive a portion, or it could also come from raising utility rates or by cutting the budget elsewhere. That other funding source was not determined at Friday's special public meeting.

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