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APRC to request City Council support for ballot measure

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The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission last week unanimously voted to request that Ashland City Council place a tax levy to fund parks operations on the May ballot.

The commission has asked the council to vote at its Jan. 4 meeting on putting forth a ballot measure for a five-year property tax levy to fund parks operations at $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed value, where it stood in 2018.

At the Dec. 23 special meeting, Commissioner Rick Landt said APRC also reserves the right to move forward with an independent ballot initiative, should the City Council vote down the commission’s request.

“APRC is taking its request directly to the people that it serves,” Commissioner Julian Bell said. “There couldn’t be a clearer way of making the decision about whether the voters really want to continue to have the service that they enjoy or whether it’s no longer important to people.”

The request for support comes as APRC wrestles with a 2019 drop in tax rate from $2.09 to $1.89 per $1,000, greater reliance on the Food and Beverage Tax, and a $562,000-reduction in the department’s capital improvement allocation.

“While APRC continues forward and discusses the potential for a recommendation to the Council that will address the long-term funding for our organization, I recommend that the Parks Commissioners focus on solutions that will not require services to be cut,” Parks Director Michael Black wrote in the Dec. 21 staff report. “In order to accomplish this, it seems imperative that APRC Operations be separated from the City’s general fund.”

On Nov. 10, parks commissioners unanimously approved directing staff to compile information for a proposal to the mayor and councilors for a May 17 ballot measure, and as a long-term strategy, creation of a Parks and Recreation District with a permanent tax rate to replace the levy. The levy proposal requires City Council approval by late February to make the May ballot.

As another option, Black said, commissioners could start a ballot initiative independently, which — with enough signatures — would bypass the City Council. The likelihood of obtaining City Council approval seemed “slim” given recent information, he said. Commissioners cited an email from Councilor Tonya Graham explaining the council’s position.

Graham said Monday that putting forward a ballot measure for a levy was “premature” given the City Council’s ongoing conversation with the community about services tied to the general fund.

Prior to following through on the City Council process — including public listening sessions, assessment of the potential consolidation of regional police and fire services, a community wide survey and identification of expense reductions — the city lacks the answers necessary to put forward a levy, she said.

Landt said gathering a couple thousand signatures for an initiative is an “arduous” process, and APRC faces a short time frame.

While the City Council undertakes the next budget process, partial funding dedications that may be included do not represent assurance that APRC operations will be made whole, Landt said. Pursuing a funding source with a $2.09 tax rate secures dedicated money and sets Parks and Recreation on the right path toward a district, he said.

“Going the district route may be less confusing to voters, as it would be crystal clear that the only property tax that APRC would receive would be via the district — no double dipping would be possible,” Landt said, addressing false allegations on social media that such crossover had occurred in the past.

“Ultimately, we want a district,” he continued. “I think that’s the only way we’ll ever get financial independence.”

For an initiative, petitioners could continue gathering signatures for the November ballot if too few were secured in time for the May ballot deadline, Black said. Staff are aligning the district formation concept with the November ballot timeline, allowing time to gauge community group willingness to get involved, he said.

APRC is scheduled to meet Jan. 6 for a planning and strategy session regarding next steps.