The Ashland Budget Committee got its wish to see more extensive employee compensation records, a charge led by assistant chair Garrett Furuichi in the wake of initial rebuffs.
But now a whole new line of questions emerge. The request for records had become contentious with citizens budget committee members citing state law and demanding employee pay scales, overtime and benefit calculations, as well as specifics about outside contracts.
At first their request was met with questioning by interim Finance Director Bev Adams, who asked why the committee wanted such detailed information. “It’s highly unusual. I’ve never been asked for this before,” she told the committee.
It was determined the committee has a right to see the information. Oregon law allows for the release of public employee salary and benefit information.
The request and eventual agreement to provide a host of new records, including some 140 pages of documents of employee information, means the committee will need to take more time to cull through it all before making final decisions. The 14-member panel (half citizen volunteers and half City Council) set another meeting for 6 p.m. Monday, June 5, in the Council Chambers to finalize the city’s two-year budget.
Considerations in play include calls by dozens of citizens testifying in favor of funding a new position in the city to administer its Climate and Energy Action Plan, drafted by citizens, which suggests ways for the city to lower its carbon emissions.
The citizens want a staff level position to make sure the recommendations are followed which, among other things, calls for greater use of non-fossil fuel energy.
The city is also grappling with an increasing Public Employee Retirement System bill as its employees age out and retire, while the return on the fund's investments is lower than the amount paid out. Also drawing down available funds is a hefty debt payment ($1.15 million a year) for the Ashland Fiber Network.
The budget committee acknowledges it is dealing with some constraints. Members also must face contracted employees who have increases built in, as high as 7 percent in several departments, including public works, and a commitment to hire five new officers at a tab of roughly $550,000.
Also on the list of "must-fund" items, according to numerous members of the City Council, primarily led by Councilor Greg Lemhouse, and budget committee is contributing to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which has a balance that has remained static at $166,000 since shortly after its inception in 2008. “This is the biggest issue we face in Ashland,” the councilor told his colleagues at a recent study session on the issue.
To pay for it, the city must find revenue streams. “These resources are really aggressive. How did you come up with such an aggressive forecast?” Furuichi asked the new Finance Director Mark Welch, who stood behind the numbers which call for increases in property taxes up to the state limit, about 9 cents more per $1,000 in assessed valuation. That alone brings in $1.7 million more.
Other projections of increases in the hotel and motel tax are based on assumptions about tourism, which has been steadily rising. While it is not currently budgeted, raising electric utility rates is in the mix of options for raising revenue to pay for the city’s priorities in the next two years.
Ultimately the budget committee will have to go through the wish lists of departments and decide what it can reasonably afford and what new sources of taxation citizens are willing to come up with for those priorities.
Many in the course of the night on Thursday quoted the now former interim Finance Director Adams in saying, “Ashland wants everything, but you can’t have everything.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.