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Council Corner: Not exciting, but necessary

Good asphalt. It’s not exciting, but necessary.

Recently, the City Council was made aware by city staff of unexpected growth in revenue from our meals tax. As we all know, the meals tax is an essential revenue generation mechanism that allows us to pay for the loan on the wastewater treatment plant as well as acquire land for parks development. The tax also spreads the burden from only Ashland residents to visitors and tourists as well. This mechanism has worked well for many years. Just a few years after the “re-election” of the meals tax passed with overwhelming support, we are now faced with a large revenue surplus that is projected to conntinue into the future.

This brings up two important questions: What should we do with the increased revenue, and how should any re-direction of these funds be handled?

Let’s take the second question first. This is easy for me to answer as I believe it was clearly the expectation of the community that any revenue raised by the meals tax would be used for the stated purpose and that a “slush fund” would not be established. I believe any other use of that revenue should be referred to the voters to decide. This not only adheres to the wishes of the voters when the tax was approved, but also to our strong community value of government transparency.

Now, back to the first question of what to do with the additional revenue. One instinct is to simply return the revenue to the voters, but keep in mind that a portion of that revenue came from the wallets of non-residents, so simply re-distributing that money to our own residents just doesn’t seem the right thing to do. I believe the better decision is to use the additional revenue to pay for much needed projects that would benefit the entire community.

Certainly there are sexier and more exciting projects that we can all come up with, but I believe that staff’s recommendation of using the revenue for city streets is sound.

Spending money on pavement and asphalt to fix our streets is like buying a new water heater. They are expensive and no one is excited to do it, but it is very much needed.

We currently face at least $10 million in needed street repairs. We have heavily used collector and arterial streets that have not been resurfaced since the late '70s. We have streets that are near failure and some that are failing. Waiting any longer simply will mean paying more in the future. That may be politically expedient, but I believe kicking another problem down the road for future City Councils to deal with is just not right. We faced this with the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water connection. That was a project that was delayed for political expedience and ended up costing our community millions more to complete as a result. We should not play the same game with our streets.

I believe a city’s infrastructure reflects its priorities and could be viewed as an argument of image over substance. Certainly, Ashland has an image of a cultured and progressive community, but I believe we are also a community that values a solid foundation as well. As such, investing in our streets makes sense. It also makes sense that we ask those who visit our community and contribute additional wear and tear to our roads to help pay for them as well. Simply lowering the meals tax and collecting less will mean that we will need to generate revenue through increased street or other fees, utility bills or property taxes. I don’t feel this is the best path. Asking our visitors and tourists to help repair our infrastructure that they utilize as well is fair and prudent.

This is why I strongly advocate referring to voters a proposal that uses the current and projected additional revenue from the meals tax for the critical street repairs we are confronted with. It may not be sexy or exciting, but good infrastructure and street repairs are pretty cool in my book.

Greg Lemhouse is a member of the Ashland City Council.