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Committee adopts two-year budget

The city of Ashland's two-year, $285,832,964, budget was approved by the Citizens Budget Committee Monday night.

Budget Committee Chair David Runkel pointed out his concerns saying the budget represents an increase in spending by nearly 18 percent despite the fact that the budget is reportedly balanced, according to the city’s finance office. But Runkel maintains it’s done on the backs of tax payers. “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 on 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 the city council meets. The door was left open for that as the committee grappled with ways to make the budget work.

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 the following: a person to fill the role of directing the city’s effort at honoring the Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP) developed by citizens which regulates Ashland’s best efforts at seeking out renewable energy and addressing 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 identifying revenue within the current budget, the ombudsman position is to be paid for by increasing permit fees by one tenth of 1 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, creating roughly $220,000 in revenue for the Ashland Police Department. That motion failed.

The total to hire five new officers as approved by the council is somewhere around $550,00, but the increase in taxes would get the budget half way there. The committee declined to do it. So the question of how and if 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 healthcare costs for workers who currently pay 5 percent, but none of the proposals were met with approval.

Some suggestions, such as increasing employee healthcare 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.

Still, at the end of the night the budget presented, with few changes, passed.

The questions which remain will be settled by the City Council, such as how to pay for additional police officers and the new CEAP director or 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 of spend on these projects and we have to be more sensible. Where will we be if there’s a crisis in two years?”

Co-Chair Garrett Furuichi, who was active along with member Shaun Moran in requesting full records for analysis, argued that the process was flawed in that the committee was forced to work without all the data they needed.

He requested the committee meet quarterly so they could be more prepared for the next budget in two years. He was told it would not be within his purview to make the request. Instead, the city may create an ad hoc committee to meet regularly and discuss and monitor the budget process, but a vote was not made on the suggestion.

The mayor would have the authority to create that committee and chose its members.

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