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Committee asks hard questions about budget

This is the time of year every two years when seven citizens selected by the Ashland City Council sit down with the full council to decide how to allocate its funding for the next two years. It’s a difficult process, as evidenced by hard questions and the occasional flaring temper.

With so much to discuss, the meeting on Thursday began at 6 p.m. and didn’t end until nearly 11.

Challenges include a $2.2 million dollar increase in costs for the Public Employee Retirement system (PERS) and a request by the police chief for five new officers at a cost that is in the $550,000 range. Additionally, most departments have increased personnel costs as longtime city employee salaries are scheduled to increase.

Other factors discussed included taking into account the possibility of an economic downturn, which several on the finance committee with high-level finance backgrounds say would be prudent, and a lack of affordable housing in a city where much of the workforce is employed in the service industry, with typically low wages.

The city’s new finance director, Mark Welch, was directed to provide detailed breakdown on employee salaries, benefits and overtime after an unanimous vote directed him to do so. This was a change from the first budget meeting where interim Finance Director Bev Adams declined to do so and the committee tabled it until the next meeting.

Citizens testified at the start of the meeting. Several requested the budget committee allocate funds to create a new position at a director level to oversee the Climate Energy Action Plan recently endorsed by the City Council, provisions of which could add additional strain on the stretched budget. Others, like Andrew Kubik, suggested the city withdraw its conceptual approval of hiring five new police officers and use the money differently.

“Ashland’s population has remained the same for the last 10 years," he said. "What’s driving the push is all the new ordinances downtown which causes the department to enforce them. They are very time consuming and that type of backdoor approach is not effective. It’s more tactical than real.”

Police Chief Tighe O’Meara acknowledge that “The case load is up .... There’s been an increase in response time. That is is scary.”

The chief has used the ratio argument of having 1.3 officers per thousand residents, stating that the average for comparable cities is two per 1,000. Budget committee member Mary Cody countered that 1.3 is the average for all cities in Southern Oregon, including Medford.

“Everything points to — we need more officers,” Chief O’Meara said, adding that comparing larger cities to smaller doesn't necessarily translate. “Better relationships points to use of force being down. I believe this is the right thing to do and we have to do it now.”

However, his budget did not include the five officers, since a way of paying for them has not been established. Use of utility rate increases were discussed, drawing criticism. The council set aside a decision on a funding mechanism until budget meetings were held.

The Fire Department also presented a budget which called for increases in personnel expenses, largely due to scheduled pay increases and overtime.

“We made a decision we need eight people on duty,” interim Fire Chief David Shepard said when asked. “If someone gets sick and I’m down to seven and I’m told I need eight I have to hire someone in at overtime for 24 hours.”

Shepard contended that the fire department also has revenue streams to offset some of their budget, like ambulance service which brought in $2.5 million to the general fund, and a $6 million dollar grant for the Ashland Forest Resiliency program.

When it was time for the Ashland Fiber Network to present its budget, the committee was largely critical.

Committee member Sal Amery pulled no punches, saying “It’s to date been a losing business. Have you got a group who is considering at what point you decide to shut it down?”

Shaun Moran shared the same perspective. “It’s an experiment that’s gone bad. It’s never made a profit.”

As Director Mark Holden tried to defend AFN, saying it’s at a break-even point in sales of more than $400,00 per year he was shut down. “As long as it’s throwing out $400,000 per year off the $1.15 million dollar debt service, we’re not losing as much money. But that’s not the same as making money,” Councilor Dennis Slattery said. He told Holden there may come an end. “At some point we many need to consider shutting it down.”

The Budget Committee is scheduled to finalize the budget at a public meeting starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 25, in the Council Chambers at 1175 East Main St., Ashland.

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

May 26: Several errors in this article corrected.