Citizen group hopes to ask voters to use city’s food & beverage tax to fund parks

Mike Gardiner holds a clipboard with an initiative petition on it in Lithia Park. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
July 1, 2022

Friends of Ashland Parks & Open Space start petition drive: ‘The clock is ticking for us’

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

In an effort to secure sustainable long-term funding for parks, a group of concerned Ashland residents, including a former Parks & Recreation Commissioner, is preparing to gather signatures to put a ballot initiative before voters this November.

Friends of Ashland Parks and Open Space, a citizens group of about 10 local residents, started staffing an information table at the Ashland’s Growers Market Tuesday morning. City Hall approved signature sheets later in the day Tuesday and Mike Gardiner had them in hand on Wednesday. 

“We hope to start immediately,” Gardiner, who resigned from his position on the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission in January, told Ashland.news Wednesday afternoon, “ and we will be gathering signatures this weekend.”

The ballot measure is a proposed amendment to Ashland’s Food & Beverage Tax ordinance.

“It is asking the citizens to determine the allocation of the Food & Beverage tax that they and everyone who eats in town pays,” Gardiner said. “Everyone that visits our town pays it and this would simply be acknowledging that we want to direct it to Ashland Parks & Recreation.”

Gardiner said the ballot initiative wouldn’t fund Parks & Recreation completely, but he believes it would be a step toward securing sustainable funding for the future of parks.

“The Food and Beverage tax is a restricted tax,” Gardiner said. “It’s designated for very specific things but the voters can change that … we’re simply asking the voters to consider applying that 75% of the total Food & Beverage tax to parks, in addition to the 25% that currently goes to Parks for their (capital improvement project fund).”

The citizens initiative group is prepared to start canvassing this week and into the holiday weekend, and there are plans to reach out to voters during Ashland’s Fourth of July festivities as well.

“We intend to be out in force gathering signatures,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner is also looking ahead to Tuesday, July 5, when Ashland City Council may take a vote on the ballot initiative.

Councilors requested during last week’s meeting to schedule a vote on whether to put the Ashland Friends of Parks and Open Spaces on the November ballot.

City Manager Joe Lessard has also recommended a separate referendum go to the voters that would amend the city’s charter to allocate at least 25% of Food & Beverage tax to Parks and would allow  up to 75% of the tax to be spent at the council’s discretion for other general fund uses, such as police and fire.

“If this body decides to endorse the petition that’s already underway then that’s obvious what our path is,” Councilor Tonya Graham told fellow councilors during the June 21 meeting. “If we choose a different path, I don’t require that we have all the language perfect that night. I just want to know the specifics of what that path is.”

The last day for council to file paperwork with the city recorder if they choose to take Lessard’s recommendation to the voters is Aug. 19, according to Katrina Brown, city attorney, during the meeting. That process would need to be finalized before Sept. 8, Brown said, because that’s the date that council would need to file necessary paperwork with Jackson County Election officials to put an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Lessard told councilors during the June 14 meeting that his suggestion to go to the voters is to broaden the use of Food & Beverage tax and “allow the council to use it to balance expenditures and consider a broader context.”

“We’re taking council at their word and hope that will be discussed at the July 5 meeting, and hopefully we would have majority of Councilors vote to do that,” Michael Black, executive director of APRC, said. “Then we wouldn’t need to gather 3,000 signatures.”

The group needs to submit the signatures to Ashland’s City Recorder Melissa Huhtala by early August in order to get the initiative on the ballot, if the City Council does not approve their initiative. 

Currently, Lessard has recommended putting a referendum to Ashland voters to broaden the use of the Food & Beverage tax to include the city’s general fund.

Black referenced the recommendation to draft language for an ordinance amendment recommended by Lessard. The amendment hasn’t yet been reviewed, Black said, while the “Friends of Parks” initiative has been approved to move forward by city staff and the Oregon Secretary of State.

“I would hope that the Council could just support the initiative of the ‘Friends’ (of Parks) and if they did that, there would be no support of a second initiative,” Black said.

Asked about the roughly four-week window to gather 100 signatures a day in the next 30 days, Gardiner acknowledged the tall task at hand. 

“I personally don’t have any experience collecting that many signatures, so I really can’t answer that. It will be a Herculean effort, I’ll say that,” Gardiner said. “We have some volunteers who will be helping so we’ll be doing our best.”

He noted that time is of the essence, though, to proceed with the initiative.

“The clock is ticking for us,” he said.

APRC held a special meeting last week where Commissioners voted unanimously to endorse putting the initiative on the November ballot. Gardiner is glad to have APRC’s support.

“It’s ultimately important that they would endorse a citizen ballot measure that benefits that not only Parks & Recreation but the city as a whole,” Gardiner said. “Their number-one goal is sustainable funding for Ashland Parks & Recreation and this ballot initiative helps meet that goal. I would think that also should be the goal for the City Council, but I guess they’ll make that decision on (July) 5th.”

Gardiner said those who formed the citizens initiative group started talking about the concept of a ballot initiative in early spring.

“I think it would be a monumental step for the City Council to say, ‘We appreciate the effort your group is putting into this. We don’t think this is a bad idea,’” Gardiner said.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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