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Ashland parks need a sustainable funding source

In the late 1980s, it was discovered that Ashland didn’t have as many parks per capita as Roseburg, Medford or Klamath Falls. Also, Ashland’s park acreage was primarily in one place, Lithia Park. That troubled some. Not only was Ashland’s park acreage low compared to other Southern Oregon cities, but the parks were not distributed so most residents could easily access them. The future of Ashland’s parks was at a crossroads.

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In response, visionaries including John Fregonese, Cathy Shaw, Brian Almquist, Barbara Jarvis, Neil Benson, Brent Thompson and many others set out to create a road map for the future of Ashland’s parks. That road map was written into the city’s Comprehensive Plan approved by the City Council in 1991.The plan included a map of potential park properties the city would work to obtain and set a goal of a park within a quarter mile of each resident.

Over the years, as the quarter-mile-to-a-park goal was substantially met, the emphasis shifted to lands critical for trails, outstanding natural features and wildlife habitat, which were also Comprehensive Plan goals. That emphasis has resulted in popular acquisitions such as the land along Bear Creek between North Mountain and Oak streets, resulting in bicycle and hiking trails, protected riparian areas and support for endangered species such as coho salmon.

Beyond the in-progress East Main Park that replaces the YMCA park, no further lands are under consideration for developed parks (unless the Lincoln School Park could be acquired from Ashland School District).

Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC) has an excellent parks and recreation system in large part because the Woman’s Civic Improvement Club in 1908 advocated for an elected body to shepherd parks and dedicated funding to finance those parks. The Club’s success was enshrined in the City Charter. The charter designated a parks property tax of up to $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed value. A state ballot initiative in1996 overrode the charter, leaving APRC funds dependent on the city’s Budget Committee. The park system was built on the assumption of steady, dedicated funding. However, as a result of the 1996 law, that assumption no longer holds.

Today, Ashland’s exemplary park system meets the needs of most citizens with trails, wildlife sanctuaries, playgrounds, ball fields, community gardens and natural areas. But, once again, Ashland parks are at a crossroads — this time to find secure funding.

Responding to city-wide budget pressures, APRC has tightened belts by (among other things) reducing staffing from 39.75 full-time equivalent employees last year, to 35.75 FTE now. There are fewer FTE currently than in 2005, even though park lands have increased from 643 to 797 acres during that same time period. The APRC budget since 2005 has increased an average of 3.3% per year, just slightly higher than the inflation rate for the same period.

APRC pays money back to the city general fund for “central services” such as financial, legal and human resources. Beginning with the new biennium in July 2021, those costs will climb an additional $500,000 per year due to changing accounting procedures. To balance APRC’s budget, parks commissioners chose to take $650,000 per year from APRC’s ending fund balance. Excluding the central services increase, the APRC budget for the next biennium will rise $150,000 per year or 1.9%, less than this year’s inflation rate. In two years, there will be no ending fund balance to fall back on. Unless additional funding is found, APRC will face significant cuts in programs and levels of service.

APRC’s budget has been impacted by past largess. When the Ashland School District was struggling with its budget, APRC facilitated funneling money to ASD via the Youth Activities Levy and created the North Mountain Park Nature Center with an emphasis on youth outdoor recreation. When there were insufficient ballfields, APRC built the North Mountain fields facility, with the majority of the benefits going to Ashland High School’s softball, baseball and soccer programs. When the city needed funds for the Senior Center, APRC agreed to take over its management and funding. Of course, these services and facilities benefit the community, but they are also drains on the APRC budget.

This funding decrease trend is obviously unsustainable. If Ashland citizens want their parks’ bathrooms, lawns, ball fields, trails and courts maintained at their current levels, to say nothing of the many requests for additional services and facilities that are constantly fielded by staff and commissioners, APRC needs a reliable funding source. The city staff’s recommendation in the 2021-2023 budget of moving all the Food and Beverage Tax proceeds to APRC is a start (this amount would cover about half of APRC’s operating expenses).

But more needs to be done to ensure quality parks and recreation programs and the healthy lifestyles that they support. Maintaining current service levels requires current or near current funding levels. If you believe as I do that parks are essential for a livable city, now is the time to let your city councilors know that you support finding stable, dedicated funding for our parks.

Rick Landt is an APRC Commissioner. These views are his own. He can be reached at rick@ashland.or.us.