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APRC dives into funding strategy, ballot measures

ASHLAND — The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission is slated to convene in person Jan. 5 for a strategy session regarding four proposed options for securing a dedicated funding source.

In early November, APRC considered a proposal from parks Director Michael Black to explore a tax levy to fund APRC operations, and to proceed with evaluating the feasibility of forming a Parks and Recreation District.

According to Nov. 10 meeting minutes, commissioners unanimously approved directing staff to compile information for a proposal to the mayor and councilors for a five-year tax levy to fund parks operations at $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed value (to be placed on the May 17 ballot), and as a long-term measure, creation of a Parks and Recreation District with a permanent tax rate to replace the levy.

The levy proposal would need to secure City Council approval by late February to make the May ballot. The timeline for issues in front of the City Council indicates the November ballot is more realistic, depending on the details of a community survey the council is considering, Black said.

Discussion about a community survey focused on “prioritization of services provided by the city through its general fund and options for resolving the city’s financial deficit” was held over from the Dec. 7 City Council meeting due to time.

“We became aware that there was a timing issue, and because of that timing issue there could have been a lack of support [on City Council] for the proposal at this time,” Black said. “However, there were discussions that were had about the potential for other timing for something similar to this.”

Black requested new direction from commissioners at the Dec. 8 APRC meeting, as the Parks and Recreation Department faces the looming issue of unsecured funding in the next biennium.

“If we don’t take some sort of action, we are looking at a cliff in July of 2023,” Black said.

Strategic planning for service delivery and operations must proceed in the face of uncertainty about what the city will come up with for APRC in the next budget cycle, Commissioner Mike Gardiner said.

“There’s consistent inquiries and encouragement for us to do more and, in fact, citizens say, ‘just do more with less,’” Gardiner said. “It’s a difficult conundrum for us because while at a certain level you can probably do a little bit more with a little less, but if you get a lot less and are expected to do a lot more, it’s just not going to work that way.”

The commission plans to meet Jan. 5 to deep-dive into options for future funding and select a plan.

“City Council has very different priorities than what we have,” Commissioner Rick Landt said. “[If we] wait for the survey, the timing’s not clear, it’s possible that that doesn’t get done in time. … I’d rather see us working toward solutions where we have a bit more control over the process.”

Black said as one option, the commission can follow the City Council-led process and attempt to ensure commissioners are involved in any citizen survey the council may approve. Other options include forwarding a levy proposal to the council and requesting its vote, starting a ballot measure initiative by gathering signatures, and exploring the formation of a district.

The district option could be ready for the November ballot, Black said, and would both identify a dedicated funding source and establish an independent agency, providing commissioners the power to act as their own board of governors regarding budgets, plans, property purchases and bonds, for example, he said.

“There is some headwind to a district,” Landt said, acknowledging significant staff and volunteer time required to see a ballot measure through. “I think it’s probably the best course, because it basically puts us back to where things were before 1996 when the state law changed.”

After voters passed Measure 50, changing the property tax system in Oregon, park funds were lumped back into one pot — insufficient funds across the board have forced the City Council to weigh essential and nonessential services in all city departments, putting funding recipients in competition with each other, Black previously said.

The APRC funding rate dropped to $1.89 per $1,000 in 2018, leading to the elimination of staff positions and decrease in services, which the commission has cited as motivation to construct a new short- and long-term funding framework, should residents want to maintain or improve established service and maintenance levels.

In other business, Black said the Grove and senior center unlocked their doors under a “soft reopening” starting Dec. 6, with reception hours from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All APRC offices will close Dec. 24 and Dec. 30.

“With this reopening, it does not mean that all of our recreation programs are coming back right now,” Black said. “It’ll be a while as we work to reopen for those types of things.”

The soft opening precedes a planned full reopening of APRC buildings in early January. Other city buildings may reopen on different schedules, Black said.

“We also have to consider that staffing is very low at this time throughout the city and APRC,” he said. “So our ability to open up completely is hampered by staffing issues, especially at city hall.”

The Nature Center plans to reopen after the holidays, and the Pioneer Log Cabin could start taking reservations after Jan. 1, he said. Ballfield and outdoor facility reservations are being accepted for 2022.

On Dec. 18, a First Frost event at the Ashland Rotary Centennial Ice Rink will celebrate the holidays and signs of reopening, Black said, with discounted family skating, live performances by the Ashland City Band and Southern Oregon Figure Skating Club, public skate time with holiday music by Ashland High School band members, and hot drinks and snacks provided by the Ashland Lions Club.

Parks staff will be on site from 4:30-6:30 p.m. to let the public know what to expect in 2022 as far as recreation programming, and to share volunteer opportunities, Black said.

On Dec. 23, the senior services division will host a holiday lunch drive-thru event, with gift cards for the first 50 seniors, small donated gifts for the rest, and holiday music by members of the AHS band. Call 541-488-5342 to sign up.

With about 80 people registered as of Dec. 8, Black said the event had already yielded the “largest response” of any drive-thru event hosted by senior services during the pandemic.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.