I am writing to discuss the vote the Ashland Budget Committee took in the last budget cycle, not to forgive the $525,000 health care loan extended to the Ashland City Health Benefit Plan. Surprisingly, the City Council voted to forgive the loan.
My understanding was that city staff would come up with alternatives to address the loan without forgiving it. At least. that is what I understood when I voted on the health care issue during the last budget. In principle, I applaud attempts to find an alternative health care plan, which could be cheaper and reduce future risks to the city, though the merit of forgiving the loan is still not fully clear. This process raises a few concerns for me as a citizen:
The city has not been successful in trying to run businesses for itself in the past, as can clearly be seen in the implications of the Ashland Fiber Network, a cost to the city in excess of $11 million, and now the health care program. Our city government should instead be focused on building a sound financial backbone that can provide funding for the city’s policies in a responsible manner without putting the city in financial risk, and leave business management to third-party providers who are well-versed in such matters.
The policy decisions appear to be reactive rather than proactive. We need a plan for future project spending, to build up reserve funds in tandem with expected costs. Instead we seem to have a propensity to overspend with short term-vision. This approach is ineffective and continually puts pressure on the citizens with increased utility fees and or higher taxes.
To forgive a loan and incur loses with no sense of accountability or desire to cut or delay projects to raise the necessary capital needed to fund them makes little sense. We need fiscal sustainability, a clear vision that looks beyond the four-year term and is supported by reserve funds with expected spending over a number of years, which would reduce the financial stress to the city and citizens of this fine community.
During the 2017-2019 budget cycle, a number of these concerns were raised and council members assured the budget committee that they would look into certain projects, health care and AFN to name a couple, and revert back with concise plans to stop the bleed. I have not seen any such plans presented or made available to the public that addresses these concerns.
As a citizen and ex-Budget Committee member, I would like to see precise plans and cost analysis on both. I would like to understand how the mayor and council justified the decision to forgive the Health Care Fund loan and how the new strategy cuts costs over the next three to five years and brings us back into compliance. Most importantly, how will our elected officials implement a long-term plan that will reduce the future monetary stress and impact to the city? It is essential that they make better decisions to alleviate the growing costs and strain on the citizens of our community, and create a solid platform that can withstand the market correction and volatility that are inevitable, a plan that our community can be proud of.
Saladin Amery of Ashland is a former member of the Budget Committee.