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Committee recommends property tax increase

The Ashland Citizens Budget Committee has recommended increasing property taxes and a handful of other fees and rates rather than laying off three firefighters.

The committee recommended increasing property taxes by 4.3 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. According to City Administrator Kelly Madding, the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay an additional $13.50 a year.

The committee also recommended establishing a 5% franchise fee on Ashland Fiber Network, which would bring in about $120,000. The fee would be applied to AFN’s gross revenue, according to City Financial Director Mark Welch.

Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi resigned earlier this month to free up $200,000 per year for the retention of the three firefighter positions, and it may have worked. Ashland City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, in the Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

To help balance the budget, the fire department was asked to reduce its operations material and services budget by $100,000 per year. Acting Fire Chief David Shepherd said he had to crunch the budget, but he did it.

“I pretty much nickel and dimed us $100,000,” Shepherd said at the May 22 Citizens Budget Committee meeting.

He was able to find ways to recycle older equipment and refrain from buying new equipment in the next biennium, which is a short-term fix, he said.

“The $100,000 is doable, and we won’t put firefighters in jeopardy,” Shepherd said. “We’ll make it work. More than anything, we appreciate not having to cut firefighter positions.

A couple of committee members asked whether he thought the fire department could keep the city safe under those conditions.

Shepherd said the department will do the best it can.

“We came into this saying we actually need more (staff),” Shepherd said. “We’re going to do the best that we can do. As far as reassuring you that everything is going to be fine, I’m not able to do that. ... Mother Nature is a powerful force.”

Six full-time positions were recommended for elimination from other departments, including two from police, one from administration, one in administrative services, one court employee and one community development position.

The police positions are not currently filled, so the elimination means they will remain unfilled. However, police Chief Tighe O’Meara had also asked for more staff during his budget presentation earlier this spring.

The committee also recommended cutting $100,000 from the city’s central services, which would cut the deficit in the general fund to about $270,000 per year. That amount would be covered using the ending fund balance from the previous biennium, resulting in a balanced budget.

Multiple city councilors and Budget Committee members agreed that the proposed budget, although balanced, would not be sustainable.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal said the budget would be OK for the time-being, but not for the future.

“I’ll tell you what, folks, two years from now it’s going to be worse, and we’ve done all the cutting we can do without sacrificing things we’ve held dear for a long, long time,” he said. “This isn’t about bragging rights or property taxes. The game’s over, and we need to do something, and it’s not going to be unanimous here tonight, and it’s not going to be unanimous in the community.”

One unanimous decision by the committee was to recommend that the mayor appoint an ad-hoc budget committee to investigate potential revenue sources, such as an operating levy and an entertainment ticket tax.

Citizens Budget Committee member Shaun Moran pointed out that $400,000 for a new city hall had been approved previously.

“There’s two big lies the city perpetuates,” Moran said. “To right-size our city would be to reduce the services citizens receive, and that all of these services are demanded by the citizens of Ashland. I don’t know how many citizens demand a new city hall.”

A conceptual cost presentation for a new city hall is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 3, during a City Council study session.

The Budget Committee voted 9-4 to recommend the proposed budget to City Council.

Councilors Tonya Graham, Rich Rosenthal, Stefani Seffinger, Dennis Slattery, along with committee members Michael Morris, Jim Bachman, Pamela Lucas, Shane Hunter and Mayor John Stormberg voted yes.

Councilor Julie Akins, Budget Committee members Paula Hyatt, David Runkel and Moran voted against. Councilor Steve Jensen was not present.

Residents can address the council about the budget by filling out a public hearing speaker request form prior to the start of the June 4 council meeting, or by emailing council@ashland.or.us.

The budget must be finalized before the start of the next fiscal year July 1.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

An engine truck from the Ashland Fire Department Station #1 leaves on a medical call to assist the ambulance. File photo