On 3-2 vote, council opts to review questions with consultants before mailing
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
A city of Ashland community survey asking residents their thoughts on how the city should handle its ongoing budget deficit will not appear in mailboxes next week, after the City Council decided on a 3-2 vote to bring it back to the council for discussion of what questions are asked and how they’re asked.
The surveys were not on the agenda for Tuesday’s regular business meeting, but after City Manager Joe Lessard mentioned during his city manager report the survey would be going out at the end of this week or first part of next week, Councilor Shaun Moran expressed concerns about the questions and his expectation they would come before the council for discussion prior to distribution.
Lessard said all the questions, which were not included in the council meeting packet, had been distributed the week before to councilors. Citizen answers, he said, are intended “to help us with our budget decision making,” and survey consultants are “looking for an overarching attitude or trend in the public opinion.”
The survey is meant to help guide councilors as they make decisions about the “structural budget deficit” the city is currently facing.
Moran had voted no at a prior meeting on doing the community survey because, he said, he believed it might be easy to “skew the questions.”
“These questions are supposed to be objective,” Moran said. “They’re supposed to elicit a response that the city can then use moving forward to evaluate our structural deficit … but I don’t think it actually does that.”
“For example,” Moran continued, “the biggest cost component in our budget … is compensation. That question is not addressed.
“It would be easy to say to our citizens, ‘hey, just pay $150 more a month’ and we don’t have to do any of this. But I don’t think they’re ready for that. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to do that.
“I don’t think this questionnaire, as it is, reflects the idea of looking at this objectively,” Moran said. “Question one should be, ‘we can maintain spending, or we could cut spending’ but it doesn’t say that.
“It’s ‘pay $13 more a month to maintain spending, yes or no.’
“I mean, then question 14, which is the last question of the pamphlet says, ‘well, you know, we can address a 5 percent reduction in the general fund, oh but of course, that will mean substantial reductions in the services provided to the citizens,’ which is factually incorrect, so I think there’s some issues here that we need to address. …
“I think it needs to come back to the council for a discussion. At the very least, the questions need to be relooked at and smoothed out a bit.”
Lessard said the questionnaire process is already behind schedule by approximately two months, a delay that Mayor Julie Akins said involves a number of factors outside of council.
“The way I understand how the survey works, it’s not to recommend a specific fee increase or a fee reduction,” Lessard said. “It’s to give you a sensitivity analysis about how the community feels about policing, parks … different direct services that they receive from the city,” Lessard said.
“It is an unusual kind of questionnaire,” Lessard said. “The consultants tried to accommodate a statistically valid approach to the survey.
“I’m not an expert on surveys,” he added. “They worked to try to accommodate as best they could of what they understood the council was looking for.”
Lessard confirmed sending the survey back to the drawing board now instead of moving ahead with it as planned will result in the inability to use data from the survey for current budget decisions. He said it would still be relevant for decision-making regarding the next budget.
During an interview with Ashland.news in March, Lessard described the city’s $2 million deficit as “structural” in that it is likely not a one-time event. That $2 million deficit could grow to $3.5 million imbalance by the end of the biennium if not addressed, according to the current budget’s executive summary.
“It’s structural in that you have to look at how your operations are going to look over time,” Lessard said, “and live within your means, versus saying, ‘Well, we have a one-time expense, but next year, we’ll probably be fine.’”
Lessard has since asked city departments to outline potential 5-10% cuts across the board, to help address the deficit and balance the city’s budget.
Councilors Gina DuQuenne said she thinks that the survey is fear-inducing, and includes if-then scenarios that she believes are lacking data.
“I just don’t feel like it’s ready to go out,” DuQuenne said. “I would love to see the consultants come and speak, if we could talk to them and go over this, because it doesn’t feel good to me. All the information’s not on here.”
“I would love to hear from the people, however, I don’t feel comfortable with it going out like this,” DuQuenne said.
Councilor Tonya Graham said she believes the consultants hired to formulate the survey are in a difficult place and also believes the questionnaire poses factually based questions.
“It’s their job to make sure that what goes out is scientifically valid and is not leading the audience, and that’s their expertise,” Graham said.
Graham also said she believes the council could gain a lot of good information from the questionnaire that would have been sent out.
“I don’t think we are ever going to get to a point where we all look at these words, given the diversity on this council, and we’re all … entirely happy with it,” she added, noting postcards about the questionnaire have been sent out.
Graham said she believes the delay with the questionnaire will cause a significant problem, especially since councilors have told the community that the survey is coming.
“The purpose of this is to hear from the people of this community about what is important to them and to help inform our efforts around the general fund, which are starting next week,” Graham said. “We cannot delay this to the fall if we want the timing to have anything to do with the decisions that we have to make with the general fund.”
Councilor Paula Hyatt agreed, and shared concerns about the timeline, prior to the vote.
“One of our biggest concerns was having this out ahead of summer before everybody disappears so that we can get the information that we need,” Hyatt said.
“If we insert more time into this process, we risk response, and I have to ask, is it appropriate to risk response because we are all not 100% convinced of the wording? That’s my concern, I want to hear from the public.”
With Councilors Stefani Seffinger and Stephen Jensen absent on Tuesday evening, Mayor Julie Akins broke a tie on a motion to send the survey back for further discussion and review with city councilors. DuQuenne and Moran opposed the survey as is, and Councilors Hyatt and Graham supported sending the survey as is.
The City Council will meet from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 23, and Tuesday, May 24, at the Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St., for their budget business meetings.
A notice has also been issued by the city that Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission will have a quorum present at the May 23 meeting, though they will not consider action on any items.
The meetings are open to the public to attend in person, though socially distanced, or via Zoom.
To view archived City Council meeting videos, go to bit.ly/coavideos.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ashland.news editor Bert Etling contributed to this report; email him at email@example.com.