Ashland Mayor Akins looks back at 2021, ahead to 2022
Ashland: Where We Are — City of Ashland
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
With turnover at the city and financial difficulties with the budget, the past year has been a challenging one for the city of Ashland. But Mayor Julie Akins is optimistic about the possibilities in 2022, which include studying whether the city of Ashland should partner with the city of Talent on police and fire services and the potential impact on the two communities.
In an interview with Ashland.news, Akins also reflected on the change to the city’s charter during the past year, which saw a shift to a new governance structure. The city transitioned this past year from a mayor and city administrator form of government to the city being operated by a city manager. The city officially hired Joseph Lessard as its first city manager on Jan. 3.
“It’s been an enormously challenging time,” Akins said in December, attributing that change as one of the challenges.
Akins became mayor a year ago, and worked with former City Administrator Adam Hanks, who left the city in late summer.
“I think anytime you have a changing of the guard, you can expect people to leave,” Akins said.
Gary Milliman, a retired city manager from Brookings, assisted as interim city manager this summer following Hanks’ departure.
Under the new form of government for the city, Lessard will have full control of the daily operations of the city. The mayor no longer has the power to hire-and-fire upper level city executives, but retains the power to, along with members of City Council, set the policies city employees follow.
“We will make this work … most cities in Oregon have this form of government,” Akins added.
While it wasn’t her first choice of governance, Akins seems optimistic about the viability of the new governance structure.
“I think it’s perfectly workable,” Akins said. “I think it’s appropriate for the city manager to manage staff and make those decisions based on the policy direction of the city council.”
What’s on tap for 2022?
In 2022, an outside firm will study the feasibility of the cities of Ashland and Talent partnering to jointly offer police and/or fire services. City Council members recently authorized Portland State University to study the partnership possibility.
The proposal could be a way to increase efficiencies and service levels while saving money, a key factor due to Ashland’s general fund deficit.
Akins anticipates the concept of partnering on police services might “break even” or slightly increase funding available to partner on police services, though more data from a study is needed. For fire services, Akins believes there are too many variables at play to estimate the financial impact.
“We decide as a group whether or not that’s going to be effective,” Akins said. “The idea of it is mutual benefit at the best possible price point and increased safety and response times, and everybody’s got to be at the table to see if that goal is realistic.”
The study, which was authorized by Ashland City Council members last year, is anticipated to be complete by June.
“That may give us some kind of a pathway to either continue that discussion or not,” Akins said. “We have not made a decision because we don’t have the information sufficient to make the decision.”
Akins’ philosophy is to keep spending down, not necessarily finding new revenue streams for funding, as she believes this could involve higher property taxes for city residents.
“If we could find revenue streams that didn’t cost residents more money, I’d be interested in that,” she said.
Annexation, affordable housing
Akins said the city will look for more space to provide affordable housing so the city’s workforce has a place to live within city limits. To do that, the city has expanded its annexation policies.
Akins emphasized that the city has been advised by land use and housing experts to make it easier for the city to annex more property as a way to increase affordable housing opportunities in the city.
“We’ve looked very seriously into what we can do around affordable housing,” Akins said.
“I think the entire council and staff agree that we have to have affordable housing in this community.
Akins believes most workers won’t commute 25 to 30 minutes away to come and work at a bar or a restaurant in Ashland.
“They need to live in a town where they work, so we need housing, workforce housing, for those folks,” Akins said.
“We have not identified specific places that we would like to see annexed in 2022,” she added. “I think we’re sort of looking at the whole map and looking to see … where it makes sense.”
The annexation policy changes haven’t been without controversy.
“I know not everybody’s going to be happy with that, I understand,” she said.
Akins also acknowledges clear differences of opinion among councilors on a variety of issues, but emphasized there is consensus on important issues as well, especially when it comes to affordable housing.
“It hasn’t always been easy, we haven’t always agreed, but in the end, we’ve been getting good things done for our community and I imagine we’ll continue to,” she said.
Other plans for 2022 for the city, Akins said, are to find ways to streamline what has been called “somewhat onerous” community development process.
Akins also reflects on the establishment of the city’s first Social Equity & Racial Justice Commission.
“It’s one of the first things we did as a group and it was it was terrific that we could establish a commission for the specific purpose of looking at fairness,” Akins said.
“Is it a place that’s equally welcoming to everyone, regardless of race, creed (or) belief system.”
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.