As a member of the Ashland Budget Committee I am writing to give you a few details and highlights of the exhaustive budgetary process that just concluded with the passage of the 2017-2019 budget.
First, the 2017-2019 biennium budget was almost $286 million, which is an 18 percent increase from just 2 years ago. It is the largest budget in Ashland's history and represents a 50 percent increase since our mayor has been in charge. This budget represents the largest city government Ashland has ever had with at least 220 employees. Despite vocal opposition and many questions from me and most other citizen members of the budget committee, the vote was 10-4 to adopt the budget. Each member of the City Council and the mayor voted for budget approval and several asked only one or two questions over the course of the four budget committee meetings.
The finance director stated that this was a balanced budget, which means revenues balanced with expenditures. A balanced budget, however, doesn't necessarily equate with a good budget. Assumptions were made that revenues would pay for all increased expenses, however this is an exceptionally aggressive and potentially flawed approach that leave absolutely no room for error. I would argue that this budget is fiscally irresponsible, leaves the city and taxpayers tapped out in case of funding emergencies, and doesn't adequately set aside any needed funds for the financially challenging days ahead. Believe it or not, there is only $25,000 set aside in the city's Reserve Fund for a $286 million budget!
The "balanced budget" the city proposed is only achieved with huge expected increases in taxes and fees the city charges for the services it provides to all of us. It is important to note that these charges will begin to show up in our monthly bills (water fees, electric fees, wastewater treatment fees, storm damage fees) this month, and property taxes in November. Most importantly this budget has the real potential of leaving the taxpayers of Ashland in fiscal peril if a sharp economic pullback does occur.
I was absolutely shocked to find that in our budget there is no mandate to insure the city find the most effective use of taxpayer funds. There is no plan and no accountability to insure departments look for the most cost-effective way to accomplish city goals. There seems to be no interest in controlling spending or ensuring fiscal transparency to any real degree. This is clearly one reason why our city budget has ballooned by 50 percent over the past eight years. Eighteen years of financial markets experience left me convinced that voting yes on this budget could leave Ashland in a potentially dangerous financial situation and was one of the main reasons I voted no on approval and adoption of the budget.
Lastly, in an absolutely unprecedented move (not only for Ashland but in the State of Oregon) the mayor and City Council on June 30 voted to override the vote and voice of the Budget Committee and raise property taxs to pay for additional police staff. I argued in the "White Paper on Ashland Police Staffing" that I presented to the mayor, City Council and city administration on April 13 that having a safe and secure community is an essential city service, but the cost assumptions, overall justifications for hiring and the inflexible position that the city must hire five new police staff during this budget cycle is untenable.
The mayor and City Council, despite much opposition, weren't interested in any compromise and voted unanimously to hire five more police staff without securing the necessary funding. During the budget process, paying for more police with higher utility tax was proposed as was increasing the tax rate, but both motions were rejected by the full budget committee as the supportive arguments weren't persuasive enough. That didn't matter to the mayor and City Council, as they voted to approve it anyway. At that June 30 meeting, they raised our property tax and left open raising our utility fees, to fund hiring five more police staff.
Change is a difficult process for most to accept and it also takes time. I encourage you all to become more aware and more engaged as we move forward, especially over the next year as we approach the 2018 Ashland city elections. This reckless spending must be addressed and stopped or our citizens and city will suffer. We need to elect people to our city government who "say what they mean and mean what they say" and are not afraid to stand up and represent the needs and wants of our broad community.
— Shaun Moran is a member of the 2017-19 Ashland Budget Committee.