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Ashland council approves community survey ‘bundle’ approach

Andy Atkinson / Daily TidingsAshland City Hall.

A survey in the mailbox this spring of all Ashland utility customers will ask residents whether they recommend “bundles” of conceptualized changes in staffing or budgets to various city departments.

Ashland City Council gave the green light Monday for the approach to questions on a community survey focused on prioritizing in the budget to resolve the city’s financial deficit.

A bundle might exemplify a reduction in two staff members in one department or a restructuring of another, “with the following implications for service quality,” explained economist Dan Rubenson, a lead member of the Southern Oregon University Research Center team.

Rubenson said one option might be “to leave the spending side of the budget untouched, and raise revenue” through a combination of taxes or fees. Each bundle has “the same effect on reducing the size of the structural deficit,” he said.

City Manager Joe Lessard said he maintains ongoing conversations with department heads “throughout the process,” as input into community survey development.

An ad hoc committee of three councilors, Gina DuQuenne, Paula Hyatt and Stefani Seffinger, have been working with the SOU Research Center to move the process forward, Lessard said during the Monday study session.

The full council was tasked with approving a “conceptual approach” for a survey that provides “policy-level guidance to the council so that they can effectively take on their role of determining where adjustments might be made in the budget to address our structural deficit,” Lessard said.

Councilors and the research team considered how to choose bundle elements without prematurely stepping on policymakers’ toes, and how to fairly assess and present projected impacts to service levels.

In discussion, DuQuenne said survey questions should concentrate on the five parts of the general fund, giving equal coverage to each department.

Seffinger said a focus in the research team/ad hoc committee collaboration has been ensuring that the wording of questions doesn’t encourage respondents to vote one way or another.

SOU Research Center Director Eva Skuratowicz said feedback from the ad hoc committee emphasized a need for context as to the trade-offs accompanying budget changes.

“We measure value by what someone is willing to give up for it,” Rubenson said. “There are a lot of things, including a lot of things provided by government, that we don’t buy directly, like the use of trails in the Ashland watershed.”

Rubenson said the team developed the concept of “policy bundles” of potential budget changes, with each package adding up to an overall reduction in the structural deficit of about $2 million. Each bundle features a mix of spending and revenue changes described in terms of service level impacts with department-specific examples, he said, to which respondents can recommend yes or no.

“What we have in mind are bundles of trade-offs that would be carefully constructed to give us, give council, information in general about what the respondents, the citizens of Ashland, are willing to live with and what they really aren’t,” senior research associate Karen Miller-Loessi said.

Councilor Tonya Graham said the survey was intended to address a shortfall that exists despite three departments already operating in an under-resourced state, and to flesh out what citizens would pay or give up if resources aren’t found to cover services they value, also considering mandated city services.

Councilor Shaun Moran said the city has not followed through with cost reductions, and that he would not take part in efforts to raise taxes amid high inflation.

DuQuenne recommended a pie chart to help citizens understand the division of general fund departments, and called for more cost reductions to be included on the survey because “people are tapped out tax-wise,” she said.

“If we’re not going to be looking at potential revenues, we have to be looking at cuts,” Graham said, emphasizing the cost to service levels.

Skuratowicz said the survey bundles will include both cuts and taxes for respondents to consider, on a double-sided 8.5-by-14-inch sheet.

“They’re going to give us a sense of patterns,” Skuratowicz said. “We’re going to look for consistency between how people answer, which bundles they like and which they vote no for.”

Rubenson encouraged City Council members to submit their own bundles of cuts and revenue increases that “adds up to the target” for the survey.

Hyatt said common themes raised during the meeting included the need to offer complete context with each bundle, communicate the impact of cuts in a truthful way without inspiring fear, use numbers to quantify decisions based on “authentic spend value” versus supposed value, and to make the survey accessible and easy to track.

In support of the bundle approach, Seffinger said the council can continue gathering information from the public via listening sessions and diving into complex information on the survey’s accompanying website.

Lessard said the survey, budget forecast and another study on the schedule together form a “master discussion” about community economics, affordability and the budget process — coalescing in a May to July timeframe.

The survey will be sent to all Ashland utility addresses, and the research team assumes (but does not guarantee) a 30% response rate. 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 a timeline included in the proposal, introductory postcards are scheduled to be mailed the fourth week of March through the first week of April, followed by the survey the third week of April. A final report is slated for the end of July.

As the research team progresses its side of the plan, the city is tasked with providing all utility addresses, guidance on survey questions, access to the finance department “to understand the budget and implications of cutting various programs,” discussion of implications on a city-sponsored webpage, and a public relations campaign encouraging survey responses.

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