Commissioners also vote to formally oppose two initiatives for November ballot
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioners unanimously voted Sept. 14 to formally oppose two measures headed to the November ballot that they believe would negatively impact the commission’s role and relevance.
APRC Chair Rick Landt said Measure 15-210 would move management of Ashland Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black from elected Parks & Recreation Commissioners to the city manager, an unelected role, Landt noted. If passed by city of Ashland voters, Landt said, the parks director and parks staff would be under the direction of the city manager, who reports to the City Council.
Landt said the parks director would essentially have two bosses: parks commissioners and the city manager, who would be in charge of hiring, firing, and paying the parks director.
The scenario is one that Landt believes would increase conflicts with Ashland City Council.
“Discord would likely become the norm in future years as commissioners, councils and the city manager all tried to have their say and way,” Landt said.
Landt sees a memorandum of understanding with the City Council as a more effective tool than a change in the city’s charter.
The other measure, 15-21, would continue to allow one-fourth of the city’s Food and Beverage tax to go towards parks, with nearly all the remaining three-quarters going to areas of the budget that the city manager recommends to City Council instead of specifically to street repair or parks. Two percent of tax revenues is set aside for administrative overhead expenses.
Commissioner Julian Bell explained why he opposes both measures, saying that part of what makes Ashland unique is a more than 110-year-old parks and recreation organization established to be separate from the city itself.
“I think the structure functions well and I do not agree with the idea that the city manager should have the lion’s share of the responsibility for city affairs,” Bell said. “The reason that this process is underway is mostly because APRC is inconvenient to the city manager and that’s not enough of a justification for either of these proposed measures.
Commissioner Jim Bachman weighed in as well.
“Should 15-210 pass, it would be the effective end of APRC because without operational control of the parks organization, we would cease to be relevant,” Bachman said. “So I think it’s very important that we vigorously oppose both of these measures.”
In June, City Manager Joe Lessard said he favors an approach aimed at preserving both the historic approach of parks and broadening the City Council’s discretion in balancing the budget.
“I’m suggesting that we go to the voters and broaden its use to allow the council to use it to balance expenditures and consider a broader context,” Lessard said.
COLA aimed at boosting staff morale
APRC also voted to approve a 4% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for parks employees that the commission plans to pay for through payroll savings from leaving some positions unfilled.
The pay increase, touted by some commissioners as a hoped-for morale boost, will be in effect starting this year and for the next two consecutive years. For the first two years, pay will increase by 4% each year and by 3% in the third year. It is the largest COLA increase in several years, according to Black, director of APRC.
“I just think it’s very important for staff morale at the moment to support people financially, so I approve of this idea,” said Commissioner Julian Bell.
Commissioners Jim Lewis, Leslie Eldredge, Bell and Landt voted for the increase.
Commissioner Jim Bachman cast the only dissenting vote, citing concerns about inflation impacts on the raise long-term and shared an interest in wanting to provide more of an increase right away.
“I was on the budget committee, so I understand the constraints,” Bachman said.
“I think attracting and holding good employees is critical and we’re going to need to pay as much as we can pay, and I’d be looking elsewhere to cut money to do that. That’s just my preference.”
Bachman, who has served as a human resources director, said he’s “sensitive to the reality of people trying to pay their bills.”
Commission Chair Landt emphasized that APRC, even with the raise, would still be paying less money than what the commission’s policy stated, which directs the commission to provide a pay increase based on the Consumer Price Index, up to a cap of 5%. Landt made a motion to waive its current policy as well as increase the pay by 3%, an amount less than the CPI.
“The problem gets really tough with COLAs when there’s runaway inflation, as there is right now,” Landt said.
Black said the commission hasn’t been following the policy for at least three years.
“The last few years, we’ve had to do what we could afford and … it hasn’t been in line with what COLA has been and some years, we haven’t done it at all,” Black said. “A small, secured advantage or benefit is better than one that is not secured and is just a potential. I wouldn’t even call this small. This will be the biggest COLA that our employees have received since I’ve been here.”
Bachman said he understood the point, but also his interest in implementing the APRC’s policy, even if it hasn’t been followed in the past.
The COLA is renegotiable in the event an additional increase is sought by commissioners in the future.
Black said a true cost of living increase would be more in the range of 7%, though the commission couldn’t afford to make an increase of that amount.
“I believe this is a very good benefit, considering the circumstances that we’re under, and it won’t be simple to do this, but I think it’ll be effective in order to keep employees happy and to ensure that we have longevity going forward,” Black said.
Landt emphasized that the COLA can be renegotiated and that the commission can choose to take “drastic measures” to make that happen if needed, but didn’t clarify what that would involve.
In a followup email, Landt said any further COLA increases with APRC’s current “funding crunch” would be funded by not filling additional positions, which would end up being permanent staff cuts. No action to that effect has been taken at this time.
The commission will pay for the increases, amounting to $82,000, through unfilled vacancies.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sept. 23 update: Story updated to add that there’s s 5% cap on CPI-based pay increases and remove reference to the city human resources director, who is not part of the APRC budget.