Ashland parks department could lose independence

ASHLAND — Parks and Recreation Commission members are concerned about a proposal to take away the parks department's partially independent status and to transfer $650,000 to $1.8 million in department reserves to the city government's general fund.

"This is a radical shift that is troubling," said Commissioner Rich Rosenthal.

Mayor John Stromberg and City Administrator Dave Kanner said the parks department's funding needs should be weighed against the needs of other city departments, including fire and police.

Kanner said changes should be made so the parks department doesn't have such large reserves, known technically as its ending fund balance.

"It's really a question of fairness and how do we ensure that we continue to fund a world-class parks system that the citizens expect while not starving other city functions because we're allowing money to accumulate," Kanner said.

The parks department has been controlled by its own elected commission since 1908. Ashland voters also gave the department its own taxing authority back then, but Oregon voters approved property tax changes in the late 1990s that erased many independent taxing authorities.

Although the parks department no longer legally had its own claim to property taxes, the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee — made up of city councilors, the mayor and seven appointed residents — continued to give the department roughly half of city property tax revenue.

That "gentlemen's agreement," as it has been known, has shown signs of vulnerability over the last few years, with Budget Committee members often questioning the parks department's special financial treatment.

Earlier this year, the Budget Committee approved transferring $263,000 in parks funds to the city's general fund.

Without that transfer, Kanner said the city likely would have laid off workers from general fund departments.

Since then, city and parks officials have been meeting in small groups behind the scenes, hoping to work out a new agreement before the start of the budgeting process in early 2013.

Kanner said the parks department should be funded by the city's general fund, not earmarked property taxes. Its reliance on tax revenue requires large reserves to cover costs before Nov. 1, when property tax payments begin flowing in, he said.

Under a draft proposal put together by Stromberg and Kanner, the parks department would give up $650,000 to $1.8 million of its reserves. Its reserves would drop from 25 percent of its revenues to 12.5 percent.

"The citizens of Ashland will notice no change in the way parks are maintained and in recreation programs," Kanner said. "This will free up cash for deferred maintenance. It doesn't make sense to let cash build up in a fund we can't touch."

Parks Commissioner JoAnne Eggers said some residents believe the parks department is being penalized for managing its money well and maintaining large reserves.

Kanner said the parks department has done a good job of managing its money, and the proposal under consideration is not meant to punish it.

The parks department would get funding from the city to cover operations, equipment, maintenance, improvement projects and other needs, according to Stromberg and Kanner's draft proposal.

The parks department would still have city meals tax revenue and fees off development that pay for land purchases and development of parks.

If the parks department wanted to make additions to services and programs, it would have to compete against other city departments and pitch "add packages" — which would be scrutinized for possible approval by the Budget Committee.

Rosenthal said the proposed changes put too much power in the hands of the Budget Committee, which includes the seven appointed residents who were not elected by voters.

Rosenthal said he would like to see the issue put to Ashland voters.

Several parks commissioners said they believe Ashlanders still want a strong, semi-independent parks department.

"State law overrode our city charter, but the voters of Ashland never overrode that," Commissioner Rick Landt said. "It's been a way of ensuring that parks in perpetuity have a high level of support and a steady stream of revenue. It's worked for 100 years."

Commissioner Jim Lewis said he thinks Ashlanders want the parks department to be special, not just another city department.

"If we go down, we have to go down reminding them that we are different," Lewis said.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings.

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