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Ashland considers bump in city property taxes

Taxes on property and a hike in utility rates may end up funding police officers while marijuana tax revenues go to support affordable housing efforts after the Ashland City Council tweaked the budget for the upcoming biennial period starting July 1. To finalize the decision, though, will take approval at a special meeting the day before the budget takes effect.

The council is due to vote on the final budget at a public meeting starting at 3 p.m. Friday, June 30, in the City Council Chambers at 1175 East Main St. The council could vote to raise property tax rates by a maximum of 9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, which would take it to the legal cap.

In addition to the property tax, utility rates would also be raised to meet the estimated $550,000 annual cost for five new police officers. Utilities would pay for approximately three officers, property taxes two officers. The 9-cent increase in property taxes would translate to $27 annually for the owner of a $300,000 home.

Councilors expressed mixed feelings last week about what might be more fair and broad based, taxing home owners or putting the total burden on utility rates.

“I think we need to keep (property) taxes where they’re at,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse. “I think given where the economy is, it would not be supported by the public.” Lemhouse went on to say they just completed the two-year budget with the Citizens Budget Committee where property tax increases were proposed and rejected. “I feel if we raised taxes now it would go against the spirit of the budget committee.”

But Councilor Traci Darrow, who proposed the property tax increase during the budget meeting, suggested a failure to increase property taxes for home owners and landlords while raising utility rates would disproportionately affect people with less income.

“I think it’s a fair way to start funding police rather than putting all the pressure on utility rates and other fees," Darrow said. "This spreads it out more through the community.”

The council has a thorny issue as it voted to approve the hiring of five new police officers and directed Police Chief Tighe O’Meara to begin the recruitment process. The council agreed with the chief that the city is currently understaffed, but said it has no way to pay for additional officers without adding revenue.

Councilor Mike Morris raised the possibility of using state marijuana tax dollars, which are earmarked for policing under state governing laws. However, it’s unclear how much money that would be. It won’t be known until the end of September.

“I think the funding of the five officers could start here (with property taxes), but I think the state marijuana tax could be used," Morris said. "I’d like to see what that amount is before raising property taxes.”

The council passed the rest of the budget as proposed by the Citizens Budget Committee, including two new positions: a permit ombudsperson and a climate and energy analyst. The ombudsperson is budgeted at $85,000 and the climate and energy analyst (as opposed to director), is at roughly $110,000. The funding was created by pulling from Community Development increases, economic grant reallocation and a general fund shifting. The climate position is paid for through cuts to the City Recorder’s office.

In addition the budget includes an allocation of marijuana dispensary taxes to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund of up to $100,000 annually. The amount that will be available is also not yet known but should be by September.

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