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APRC backs off levy for May ballot

The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission reworked its plan for developing funding options after a request for a special levy to fund operations failed to appear on a recent City Council agenda — essentially a “denial of the request,” according to parks Director Michael Black.

APRC had asked the City Council to consider at its Jan. 4 meeting referring a property tax levy to the May ballot.

The levy proposal called for a tax of $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed property value, an effort that would have returned parks funding to 2019 levels, when the levy amount dropped to $1.89 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The commission convened for a special meeting Jan. 6 to determine next steps. APRC faces greater reliance on the food and beverage tax and a $562,000 reduction in the department’s capital improvement allocation, potentially leading to a reduction in services, programs and parks/open space maintenance, according to Black.

“The council has generally been supportive of APRC and the services we provide to the community, but they have made it clear that their preference is to let their plan roll out before APRC launches into any endeavors that require community-wide support,” Black wrote in a staff report dated Jan. 3.

Black said completing the tasks for a public initiative for the May ballot — including petitioning the county, gathering signatures and developing the ballot title and language — was not feasible within the timeframe.

In discussion, points of consideration included the need for funding certainty in the upcoming biennium (July 2023), APRC’s independent charge to control and manage its funding, lands, programs and services, and the pandemic, Black said.

“Although APRC is an elected body and was elected by the same body of electors as the City Council, and although APRC has control of all funds once they are dedicated to APRC through the budget process, the City Council reserves the right to make decisions as to the level of funding that APRC will receive from the general fund, as it is,” Black explained in the staff report.

He recommended that parks commissioners “relax their stance” on the May ballot and focus on long-term options for the November ballot, such as an initiative to form a special taxing district.

While considering options for a dedicated funding source, Black advised that APRC give “deference” to the council’s power and authority in the matter, and allow time for the council to implement its plan to analyze public opinion about general fund prioritization through a community survey and listening sessions.

“I am not recommending that the commissioners acquiesce to an unspecified public process or concede defeat in accomplishing their number one goal,” Black wrote. “I am suggesting that the commissioners defer to some extent and work with the council for a time to see if both elected bodies can reach their goals together, without opposition — again, I believe both bodies are seeking the same financial resiliency.”

In a draft letter to the mayor and council composed by Black and commissioners Mike Gardiner and Rick Landt, they acknowledged the correlation between APRC’s funding reductions and city expenses exceeding revenue, and supported the community survey process “prior to setting priorities to align the budget and address budget gaps.”

The letter has yet to be finalized and signed by all commissioners. Overall, the message recaps efforts and indicates a willingness to work with City Council “as best and as far as we can,” Landt said.

During the special meeting, Landt said the request for a $2.09 special operating levy would have separated funding for APRC from the city, in keeping with the charter; resulted in a 20-cent increase to residents’ taxes if passed in an election; and allowed the city to explore revenue enhancements to support general fund departments. Further net increases to property taxes would only occur with council approval, he said.

Black said since APRC’s request was forwarded to City Council and denied, conversations with Councilor Tonya Graham have provided some confidence about a collaborative new path forward, but commissioners reserve the right to change course at any point.

“The survey is now the next political document — we need to make sure that we’re well represented on this survey and that we actually get the people out to fill out this survey who feel parks is important,” Commissioner Jim Lewis said.

Graham said the first analysis of potential changes to police and fire services is expected in April — part of the council process established to identify means to rectify a gap.

The studies will explore consolidation strategies and identify benefits, costs, pros and cons to stakeholder jurisdictions and taxpayers for each alternative, according to a proposal by the Portland State University Center for Public Service.

file photo The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission had asked the City Council to consider at its Jan. 4 meeting referring a property tax levy to the May ballot for a tax of $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed property value, an effort that would have returned parks funding to 2019 levels, when the levy amount dropped to $1.89 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Council listening sessions and the community survey by the Southern Oregon University Research Center are intended to gauge community opinion across a broad spectrum, Graham said, and city staff were directed to identify potential revenue increases to include on the survey.

According to a timeline included in council materials, questions are slated to be finalized by the end of January, followed by a public engagement campaign. A webpage is slated to go live in early March, surveys to be mailed the second week of March and open for responses through mid-April, preceding a report of findings in June. Graham said initial responses could be seen in July or early August.

“I would expect, speaking for myself, that those questions would be developed in close collaboration with APRC, with fire and police, and certainly with the city manager right in the middle of all of those conversations,” Graham said. “Council will do the final sign-off on the questions that are asked before they go out in the survey.”

Five previous surveys conducted by the SOU Research Center using random or stratified random sampling yielded response rates above 20% and as high as 55%, according to the proposal.

Graham emphasized the value of a public engagement campaign to communicate the importance of questions and to elicit the most informative response.

“We don’t know if there will be a conversation to be had with the voters in November, it’s possible,” Graham said, responding to commissioners’ concerns about the short time between summer survey results and any potential fall ballot measure.

The council has pressed for answers regarding fire and police regionalization assessments that feed into the survey, planned listening sessions, and aims to facilitate public understanding of the forces at work in the city’s financial reality, Graham said — in time to place something on the fall ballot, if warranted.

“We need to do this process so that the community understands that something is going to give,” Graham said. “We need them to tell us which way they want us to move and which direction that is. … We are out of road for kicking this can down.”

Commissioner Leslie Eldridge expressed frustration about an imbalanced mashup of public safety services and quality of life preferences in a general fund prioritization conversation with the community, and said the value of parks services seemed “self-evident” based on feedback from the public and consistent commitment from interest groups.

Graham said the survey will not ask respondents to rank departments in order of importance, but will rather parse out each general fund department’s services and where cuts or revenue increases can be found.

Graham encouraged the commission to formalize its interest in the survey question development process directly to the mayor.

Commissioner Julian Bell resisted following the City Council’s plan, and advocated for pursuing an independent funding process within the November ballot timeframe.

“I don’t think you lose anything by trying to collaborate with the City Council and taking some time and seeing if that works,” Black said. “If it doesn’t, you haven’t even implied that you would give up your stated goal, or your second option from two weeks ago, which is to do the initiative.”

Bell proposed APRC schedule three public listening sessions this spring to gather feedback, and solidify deadlines for a November ballot initiative. Further details will be prepared for the first meeting in February, Black said.