Capital improvement project budget shortfall up for discussion at study session meeting this evening
By Damian Mann for the Rogue Valley Times
Ashland Parks & Recreation is a frequent target of budget hawks, who have sharpened their claws over a recent ethics complaint and an almost $1.7-million budget error.
Leslie Eldridge, who started as parks and recreation director over two months ago after the resignation of former Director Michael Black, recently helped uncover the error in the capital improvement projects budget, which will likely lead to scaling back or delaying projects.
The capital improvement project (CIP) budget for fiscal year 2023 has been reconciled after the ending fund balance for the year was originally projected to be $5.6 million, then discovered to be $4 million. Some line items in the budget are already committed to critical projects or fund transfers that can’t be altered. Commissioners will discuss the budget shortfall at a study session meeting to be held via Zoom at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1.
Former Ashland City Councilor Russ Silbiger, who describes himself as a city gadfly, filed an ethics complaint against Eldridge on Oct. 6 because she didn’t announce a conflict of interest when she was nominated as director, though she recused herself from voting and also announced the conflict at a previous meeting.
When Eldridge was nominated, she was a member of the parks commission.
Eldridge, who acknowledged her mistake in not announcing a conflict, said she is working to resolve the complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which will likely send her a letter of education.
Mayor Tonya Graham received a similar letter of education to resolve a conflict when she voted on Feb. 7, 2023, for herself for mayor while serving as a councilor. She later asked for a new vote and recused herself. The conflict arose because Graham would have received $500 as a mayor, $150 more than as a councilor.
Silbiger said that, in isolation, his complaints to the ethics commission appear to be quibbles over minor errors, but he said they point to a larger issue with how the city is run.
“Yes, I’m picking on these small things,” he said. “It’s a pattern of behavior that’s concerning. Reading the minutes for the parks for the last few meetings, they don’t seem to have a fundamental handle on the budget at all.”
Silbiger said he finds most of the city’s budgetary process lacking, though he doesn’t think anyone is intentionally hiding money.
Silbiger said the city has for some time complained about budget shortfalls, but he said recently that city officials have changed their tune and are touting a balanced budget.
“They keep making mistakes, and they’re not isolated incidents,” he said. “I do not have faith in that budget because it is not complete.”
Over the past two months, Eldridge has worked closely with newly appointed city Finance Director Mariane Berry. They uncovered a problem with the amount estimated for the parks department’s proposed project list.
They realized that an almost $1-million grant actually had not been received and that $691,000 included in a land sales account for the current 2023-25 budget had previously been transferred to the parks Capital Improvement Project in 2017.
The $691,000 was going to be used for development of a new park on East Main Street.
This removes roughly $1.7 million out of the almost $6 million available for capital improvement projects, which include everything from the Daniel Meyer Memorial Pool to upgrades of the city’s extensive irrigation system.
The capital improvement project list, often a flashpoint among critics of the parks department, is something many cities use as a kind of wish list used to show commitment to a project and to help attract grants.
Often cities have to go through multiple grant cycles before a project gets awarded state or federal dollars.
Despite the error, Eldridge said the revised amount for the capital improvement projects is still better than in most budget cycles.
“It’s pretty healthy,” she said.
Over the next two years, the project budget will see $1.6 million added from the food and beverage tax and another $1.7 million in grants.
The amount required to build all the projects is $15.5 million. A little over half that amount will go toward a new pool, which will require voters to approve a bond measure to help pay for it.
Based on the errors discovered by Eldridge and Berry, David Runkel, who is on the Citizens’ Budget Committee, published an article in the Ashland Chronicle explaining the almost $1.7-million error.
Runkel is a frequent critic of the city’s budget and has made various cost-cutting motions during this year’s budget committee meetings during deliberations of the city’s almost $400-million biennial spending plan.
Eldridge said her new role as parks director has been overwhelming, prompting a deep dive into the parks and recreation financials while also dealing with the ethics complaint.
She said her overworked staff of 28 has been putting in long hours, even as the department tries to fill the remaining open positions to bring the number of staff back up to 35.
“I came into an organization that was overwhelmed and burned out,” she said. “To quote Ginger Rogers, parks has to do everything backwards and in heels.”
Likewise, many other city departments have struggled to retain key administrators and other staff members over the years.
City Manager Joe Lessard announced recently that he was resigning after 22 months on the job.
The parks department is still recovering from the taint of sexual harassment issues that arose under the previous administration.
A lawsuit filed by Laura Chancellor in June 2022 alleged that the former director, Michael Black, and others were part of his “boy’s club,” routinely subjecting her and others to abuse. Chancellor was superintendent of the Oak Knoll Golf Course.
In August, a $700,000 settlement was reached, but the agreement stated that it wasn’t in any way an “admission of wrongdoing or liability.”
The parks department takes care of 577 acres, 19 parks and 51 miles of trails.
Other programs include the Daniel Meyer Memorial Pool, the Ashland Rotary Centennial Ice Rink, North Mountain Park ballfields, Oak Knoll Golf Course and senior services.
Personnel makes up the largest portion of the 2023-25 parks operating budget at $8,591,278. Another $4,823,224 is budgeted for materials and services, bringing the total operating budget to $13,414,502.
Even if the parks department had all the money in hand for everything on the project list in the current biennial budget, it would still be a tall order to get them underway, according to Eldridge.
Eldridge said she expected the East Main Street park project will be a priority over the next two years. Other projects such as the Kestrel Park bridge over Bear Creek will take longer.
“We have way more projects than our short-staffed crew can realize,” she said.