ASHLAND — A new temporary utility surcharge will help fund two more police officers after the Ashland City Council vowed to continue working to find a substantial funding source to bolster the city's police force.
The vote by the council Tuesday is a victory for the Ashland Police Department and Police Chief Tighe O’Meara, who first asked nine months ago for additional officers. Within weeks, four new officers will join the force.
“What we are trying to get to is have one more police (officer) on each shift and to re-enage with the schools,” O’Meara said of his force of 28 officers.
The council committed to the hiring in early April 2017 without a funding mechanism in place. Since then, it has voted to increase the property tax rate 4.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, place a flat fee of 50 cent per month on the utility bill and rely on marijuana tax receipts to fund the first two officers — each of whom will cost the city $110,000 a year.
After much debate at the Tuesday meeting, the council voted to approve hiring the additional two officers using funds from a temporary “Public Safety Support Fee” of $2 per month on utility bills — on top of a 50 cent surcharge that will take effect July 1 to help pay for the first two officers — while the council continues to review long-term solutions.
The surcharge will be tied with property tax collections. If the property tax exceeds 1 percent of the city budget, the city will use that money in place of the surcharge, Director of Administrative Services Mark Welch said.
“The idea is that we’re not trying to make money. We are trying to fund these officers,” Welch said.
Councilor Dennis Slattery and Traci Darrow voted against an amendment that specified utility fees as a funding source, but they were in favor of the mainmotion. Darrow said the city should try to capture more tourism revenue rather than put more pressure on residents through utility fees.
“We are a tourist town, but we are not doing enough in collecting fees from them,” Darrow said, adding she’s in support of raising the Transient Occupancy Tax by 1 to 2 percent and exploring the option to put a surcharge on live entertainment tickets.
Slattery said the city could potentially work within its current budget to find $220,000 for the two positions, instead of implementing any tax rate or fees.
Councilor Mike Morris, who was chosen by uanimous council vote to be the new council chair at the meeting, said he’s nervous with the idea of back-filling the budget.
“We just went through a budget process, and we are saying we didn’t do it right,” Morris said. “That’s not the way we should govern.”
While the council unanimously supported the hiring, Ashland residents and then-members of the Budget Committee have been raising questions about the decision since it was first presented.
According to O’Meara’s report, APD has been understaffed with 28 officers for years. The report says that at the current staffing level, APD cannot respond to more than one confrontational incident at a time.
“That will put both the officers and the citizens at risk,” O’Meara explained, saying officers should have backup when they respond to emergency calls and are more likely to have to use force if they have to respond by themselves.
With population and number of crimes on the rise, “priority 1” call response time has risen to 281 seconds, longer than the goal of 264 seconds.
“We have a good relationship with neighboring cities … but we can’t rely on them,” O’Meara said. “If an Ashland resident calls for help, they deserve to have police in Ashland uniform on their front porch.”
The new hires will also allow APD to practice community policing, which staff said has helped with problems with the homeless population.
Book Exchange co-owner Roy Laird spoke at the meeting in support of the hiring, advocating for a permanent funding source. Three other people questioned whether the increase in law enforcement would be beneficial to residents, suggesting more investment into social services.
Former Budget Committee member Shaun Moran in a phone interview also raised the question of long-term funding.
“The overriding concern for me … is that how are we going to afford to live here,” Moran said as he pointed out the city already has to come up with an additional $7 million by the biennium 2021-23 to pay for the police force before the hiring of four more officers.
“It’s simple math,” Moran said. “We don’t want (Ashland) to become Aspen, but that’s what is going to happen.”
The four police officers — three entry-level officers and one lateral officer — will start within weeks, O’Meara said.
Staff will bring back the $2 utility surcharge as a resolution to the council to decide when and how the fee will take effect, Interim Assistant to City Administrator Adam Hanks said.
“The council could either add on the 50 cent surcharge, change the effective date (of July 1), or go with a totally different funding option if we figure it out before then,” Hanks said.
— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.