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Ashland council studies budget as shortfall looms

Ashland City Council continued its analysis Monday of the future of the city’s general fund, as the tangible implications of changes to essential, mandated and nonessential services in today’s environment take shape.

The council is tasked with resolving a $3 million to $5 million projected shortfall, while some departments tied to the general fund simultaneously face exacerbated operational issues.

file photo

Generally agreed upon essential city services that can be offered at various service levels include public safety (police, fire and rescue), water, flood control, and solid waste and wastewater disposal, said interim City Manager Gary Milliman. State mandates include land use planning services and regulatory compliance with services the city elects to establish.

“There are services virtually in every department that — once you’ve established those departments — are optional within the scope of that department,” Milliman said. “It’s really the council’s call on what your view is of a mandatory service to meet the needs of your community.”

Services codified in Ashland’s charter by citizen vote include the municipal court, parks department, city band and an open space program.

Nonessential, nonmandated services include citizen advisory commissions, street development and maintenance, landscape maintenance and street trees, economic development, housing, tourism promotion, water conservation and watershed management, community celebrations and events, street lighting, recreation services such as the pool, senior center and golf course, airport, Ashland Fiber Network, animal control and services related to implementing policies enacted by the City Council.

Certain infrastructure and services are not required but must meet state and federal standards once created, Milliman said. Necessary support functions accompany essential services, such as human resources, legal and financial management.

For example, no state law requires the city to have a police department, but laws do determine “mandatory provisions” such as training, supervision, safety equipment and other elements within the department once it is established per city code, he said.

“You can’t have police officers without paying them. You can’t provide the equipment needed to douse a fire without the revenue to pay for it,” he explained in council documents.

Ashland Municipal Code 2.28.280 established a police department, under the direction of a chief of police, with staff and a budget. Subsequent codes outline duties of the police chief, department administration and functions.

Milliman urged councilors to consult strategic planning documents and department-specific operational goals to guide the identification of essential versus optional services, and consider where contracting may suit essential service delivery in some departments.

“What I have learned in serving as city manager in cities both large and small is that you don’t always need to provide an essential service with city employees, the city is not the sole provider of essential services, and providing an essential service is optional,” Milliman said in council documents.

In July, former finance director Melanie Purcell offered strategies for the council to consider in response to fiscal vulnerability, including regionalizing services through special districts or intergovernmental agreements, reducing or divesting programs and services, increasing revenues, decreasing expenses and consolidating city-owned properties.

Fire and rescue, police and finance top the list for expenditures by department from the general fund, according to the adopted biennial budget.

The Ashland Police Department budget totals nearly $8 million, 95% of which is dedicated to fixed contracts, personnel and central services. The remaining discretionary sum funds supplies such as new uniforms and training, according to a budget presentation Monday by police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

With an authorized increase to 32 sworn officers prior to the pandemic, O’Meara said he intended to schedule one supervisor and three patrol officers on duty at all times, allowing the department to handle two critical incidents in progress at once without requiring assistance from another agency. The department returned to a 28-officer cap due to pandemic-induced financial constraints.

According to the adopted biennial budget, a general fund expenditure decrease of 6.86% in year two is driven by “systematic reductions in staffing and operating materials and supplies,” with administrative functions and the police department taking the “most definitive reorganizations and adjustments to services.”

O’Meara said in the current staff environment, officers are “decreasingly in a position to do proactive policing,” actively build relationships and “engage in the tenets of procedural justice,” which is believed to minimize incidents when use of force becomes necessary by taking the time to slow down and prioritize respect, dignity and neutrality in decision-making with a suspect.

With part-time cadet and full-time sworn positions open and experienced staff shifting to roles where needed, APD faces a challenging 20% operational deficiency during a time when “the nature of policing in Ashland is changing,” O’Meara said.

“I think the nature of part of the community that the police officers have a lot of interaction with has changed,” he said, noting the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire displacement and Medford’s criminalization of camping on the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season. “The officers are being run ragged.”

“It’s changing from people being resistive because they don’t want to go to jail, to people all out fighting with police officers,” O’Meara continued, referencing two incidents from the previous fortnight in downtown Ashland. “I fear that something very significant is changing here.”