July meetings set to review priorities, discuss possible tweaks
By Damian Mann for Ashland.news
The Ashland City Council Tuesday night adopted a $385 million budget for the next two fiscal years that left many councilors frustrated they didn’t do enough for affordable housing, climate change and forest fires.
“Let’s take the time and do it right,” said Councilor Gina DuQuenne, who cast the sole vote against the budget.
But time was running out for the council, which needed to adopt the 2023-25 budget before the state-mandated deadline of July 1.
The budget, the product of almost a year’s worth of work by city staff and five meetings of the Citizens’ Budget Committee, increases the number of police officers and fire and rescue personnel, including adding more emergency medical technicians.
Capital projects, including $65 million for a new water treatment plant, almost doubled from the previous budget to $129 million.
Some budget committee had worried there weren’t enough cost-cutting measures and did recommend the council study transferring the Municipal Court operations to Jackson County.
The cost to run the local court is about $1 million, but it’s not clear how much it would take to have the county undertake the court functions.
A number of other motions to cut costs, including closing the Oak Knoll Golf Course and using the land for affordable housing, were shot down by the budget committee, though some of these proposals could be addressed in the near future.
The adopted budget represents a 27 percent increase over the previous biennial budget of just over $300 million.
Other local governments are also preparing their biennial budgets. Jackson County has a recommended budget of $611 million, and the city of Medford’s is $480 million.
The money for the Ashland budget comes from a variety of sources such as property taxes, cannabis taxes, fees, and federal and state grants.
About a quarter of the adopted budget is made up of the general fund budget at $98 million. The council generally has more discretion over how it spends this portion of the budget, but it pays for many key departments in the city such as police, fire, public works, parks, planning and administration. Almost half the general fund budget goes to police and fire.
Councilors generally agreed with DuQuenne that not enough effort went into developing policy decisions prior to adopting the budget.
“I do find this process can be a challenge,” Councilor Paula Hyatt said.
She recommended that, in the spirit of working together, the council should hold a meeting to discuss policy direction after the new budget takes effect.
“It’s time we had a conversation,” she said.
The council directed staff to set up a study session on July 17, with a business meeting on July 18 on possible supplemental budget decisions.
Councilor Dylan Bloom supported the idea, saying he’d like to address issues such as preparing the community in the event of a wildfire.
“There are some things that are severely underfunded,” he said.
Councilor Bob Kaplan said he’d welcome putting policy issues on the table.
“I don’t think we need to rush to get it done before this budget gets approved,” he said.
In the future, the budget committee could start meeting in April rather than in May in order to better address some potential policy issues, he said.
Councilors will be sending City Manager Joe Lessard emails over the next two weeks describing the various issues they would like to discuss so he can have staff prepare for the July 17 meeting.
Mayor Tonya Graham, who said this is her third city budget that she’s helped develop, said the last budget was adopted during a disruptive period mainly due to the pandemic.
She welcomed having a deeper discussion over policy issues, but thought this budget was prepared in a less disruptive manner.
“I’m pleased by the direction this is going,” she said.
Councilor Eric Hansen said he was generally happy with the way the budget was put together.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. But supplemental budget decisions in the future should help fine tune some of the issues the council is wrestling with, Hansen said.
Reach writer Damian Mann at email@example.com.