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Ashland raises fees, appoints new council member

The Ashland City Council is back up to its full strength with the selection of Stephen Jensen to replace Traci Darrow, who resigned because she moved outside the city.

Jensen, the chairman of the Ashland Forest Lands Commission and district coordinator for the Ashland Food Project, got three votes during Tuesday’s council meeting. Historian George Kramer and property investor Brent Thompson each got one vote.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said Jensen has shown “stellar leadership, with a wide range of experience as a science teacher and worker at the Food Bank. He’s not a one-issue person. He’s effective and one of the hardest working people I know.”

City Councilor Rich Rosenthal said Jensen “has an amazing resume and done so many things in our community.”

Jensen served in Vietnam as a medic. In his application, he said the city’s main issues should be the budget, public works projects, watershed safety and city buildings. He will miss the next council meeting and study session because of prior vacation plans.

Utility fee hikes

Councilors raised utility fees by $5.20 monthly for an average household to maintain services amid rising costs.

Fees for water increased by 4.5 percent, storm drains by 3.1 percent, wastewater treatment by 5 percent and transportation (streets) by 3.5 percent, Public Works Director Paula Brown said.

Water rates, which increased 4.5 percent last year as well, will pay for higher personnel costs and about $30.5 million in anticipated capital costs, according to information from city staff. Staff recommended the rate increase, noting the council’s desire to proceed with planning a new 7.5 million-gallon-per-day water treatment plant.

Much of the transportation hike is due to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, which are “very expensive and driving our costs of anything we do,” Brown said.

The rate increase for wastewater treatment will help pay for $12 million in priority capital projects identified by the city’s wastewater master plan, according to city staff.

Electricity, which comes from Bonneville Power Administration, will increase by 5 percent, some because of BPA lawsuits over salmon, but most from city spending, staff said.

After the unanimous vote, Rosenthal said, “I can see the headline: ‘City council increases fees,’ but I live here, too, and have to pay them. … It’s completely unrealistic” to imagine fees would be like they were two, 10 or 20 years ago.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said the increases come after much study, are in the right place with master planning, and “not one of us sitting here tonight relishes raising fees.”

Business Park annexation

After extensive review of a 5.38-acre annexation for the proposed South Ashland Business Park, on Washington Street by the freeway, councilors found no substantial problems and unanimously sent it to second reading.

It rezones RR5 (rural residential, five-acre) in the county to E-1 (enterprise, inside the city) for light industry, manufacturing or fabrication, with maximum job creation — that is, no storage facilities.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger asked whether the park could have residential units above industrial properties, as is the goal in many new sites, but applicant-planner Jay Harland of CSA Planning in Medford said the “noisy, vibratey,” early-rising workers precludes that. There will be a “watchman’s” unit.

Most discussion was on traffic impact, especially around the busy nearby intersection of Tolman Creek Road and Ashland Street. Craig Anderson, a main opponent of the proposed Nevada Street bridge (a project now abandoned), said it will cost more than city planners think — and developers should be made to foot the bill.

Don Moorehouse of the Oregon Department of Transportation said he wasn’t notified of the Planning Commission meeting on the project and wanted to make sure it has a “trip cap” (limit on vehicle trips). Owner Evan Archerd said he wanted and received a trip cap.

Rosenthal lauded the project, noting it meets components of sound economic development strategy: to diversify economic base, support local-regional products and create family-wage jobs, so “it’s an easy ‘yes’ for me.”

Councilor Mike Morris said Ashland has a shortage of such facilities. “I like it; they are working with a difficult site,” he said.

The project has several buildings, to be built in stages, totaling 70,000 square feet.

City health plan

As expected, councilors voted to switch from a local self-funded health insurance program, which faces a projected $1.4 million deficit in the coming fiscal year, to a larger self-funded health insurance trust program. Several councilors expressed regret at the decision five years ago to self-insure, thinking it would save money.

Councilors also forgave an interfund loan of $525,000 from the Parks reserve fund to cover the shortfalls. The city will rejoin City County Insurance Services, a self-insurance trust program with a much larger pool of enrolled employees that the city had left because of a lack of claims data.

Seffinger said the city started with a reserve fund that wasn’t big enough. Rosenthal said the city needs a different strategy to maintain a larger reserve, adding, “That money is gone and isn’t likely to come back.”

Slattery said, “I have feelings about how this was sold to us. We had to do a hard stop and go in another direction.”

— Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.