City may go to voters to approve re-distribution of food and beverage tax revenue

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard, left, listens to interim Finance Director Alison Chan give a report at a special meeting of the City Council on Tuesday, June 15. Screenshot from RVTV video
June 17, 2022

Coming fiscal year’s budget approved with some trims; city attorney, finance director departing

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

The Ashland City Council plugged holes in its budget Tuesday, but will have a couple in its staffing with the departure of its city attorney and finance director, plus decisions to make on whether to put a pair of ballot measures on the November ballot — one of which would directly compete with a citizens initiative regarding parks funding.

At its third and final budget hearing, the council voted unanimously to balance the budget by approving adjustments to the supplemental budget in the amount of $1.5 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The adjustments include $780,000 in “vacancy savings” and a reduction in the 2022-23 budget of $715,000, according to City Manager Joe Lessard.

The adjustments to the budget effectively aim to avoid a more than $3.5 million deficit by the end of the current biennial budget in 2023, according to the budget summary.

“Everything came to a balance … we had enough additional items to cover our deficit,” Lessard said.

The city now has an emergency reserve of $1,715,000, allocated from $2.6 million in unanticipated one-time funds from the end of the last biennium budget, Lessard said.

“We absolutely have an emergency reserve now, thank goodness,” Lessard told Ashland.news on Thursday.

The city’s overall budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year is about $177 million, with $36 million of that in its general fund, over which the council has the most direct control. Another $15 million goes to parks, including nearly $8 million in its capital improvement fund; $8 million for police; $10 million for the fire department, which also handles ambulance services; $17 million in the electric department; and $56 million in public works.

Departure of department heads

Ashland City Attorney Katrina Brown announced plans on Wednesday to resign in a letter to city and parks staff. She said her last day will be July 14.

Brown told city staff in the letter that she had accepted a position with the Oregon Department of Justice.

“Working at the city of Ashland has been a wonderful experience for the most part, and I will miss it,” Brown said in the letter.

The city’s interim Finance Director Alison Chan noted during the budget session that she will be retiring and her last day with the city would be June 15.

Ballot measures proposed

Lessard recommended sending a referendum to voters in November that would amend the city charter to, as Lessard said, “broaden the use” of the food and beverage tax to include other general fund uses, such as police, fire, and parks.

As it stands now, 73% of the tax is spent at the discretion of the council while 25% goes to the Parks & Recreation Commission for its capital improvement program and 2% goes towards administration of the tax fund. 

At least 25% would go to parks and then up to 75% would be again at council discretion for other uses, including parks, as well as other general fund uses such as police and fire, Lessard said. 

“I’m also suggesting that we broaden the use in terms of, it’s not just (capital improvement projects), it’s also ongoing maintenance and other expenses associated with these operations,” Lessard said. “It gives the council the latitude, the discretion actually, to make decisions on how these funds are appropriated, so long as 50% goes to administration, and at least 25% would continue to go to parks.

“In that regard, I’m trying to preserve the historic approach for those two items, but broaden the other uses and broaden even for parks — it’s 25% could go for operations and maintenance,” he added.

“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.”

“In my opinion, I think the council should have the discretion to balance the general fund, and so I strongly feel that it’s appropriate that you have broad discretion,” he added. “This is really what city councils do.”

Michael Black, executive director of APRC, said following the meeting that he wasn’t called upon to address many of the statements during the session, and said that he believes the concept of the currently proposed referendum by the city would be a “step back” for Ashland Parks & Recreation.

“I’m definitely not in favor of his (Lessard’s) proposals,” Black told Ashland.news. “The reason I believe Ashland has the great parks and recreation system it has is because it has a dedicated, elected commission that focuses on that and is able to hire their own director and give their director direction.”

Black believes the current proposal would remove Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission’s ability to “argue,” “fight” and be “champions” for parks funding.

“If this were to go through, we would be subordinate to the city manager and I don’t think parks and recreation would continue to be a priority,” Black said, “it doesn’t matter what assurances are given.”

Black believes parks would take a “back seat” in funding to other general fund departments such as police and fire under the proposed scenario.

“The citizens 100 years ago foresaw this and said, ‘We want there to be a commission that hires its own director who can be our champion and who can ensure that parks and recreation stays a priority for this community,’” Black said. “The citizens will lose that if that charter amendment were to go forward.”

Friends of Ashland Parks, Trails and Outdoor spaces, a group unaffiliated with Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission, has submitted necessary paperwork for its own ballot initiative and signature gathering is underway. 

Some councilors shared concerns about adding another ballot initiative to the list and causing confusion and increasing tensions between the city and parks.

Councilor Tonya Graham suggested authorizing Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission 100% of the food and beverage tax.

“Could we ever imagine having a parks budget that was less than the food and beverage tax, because what we’re seeing is a desire on the behalf of our colleagues at the recreation to have some amount of certainty in their budget,” Graham said. “If we’re going to hold any kind of restriction still here, my question is, why don’t we simply restrict it to parks and recreation and be able to move forward with them in partnership as opposed to this path which I see as ending up with two competing ballot initiatives.

“To me, I would like to see us work in partnership with parks to figure out something that we can jointly set in front of this community and both support,” Graham added.

Councilor Paula Hyatt also shared concerns about having two ballot initiatives in front of the community.

“If there are two ballot initiatives in front of the community, it introduces a confusion and I’m concerned that both would fail, and if both fail, then we are still sitting in these chairs this time next year and we’re not able to meet the needs effectively and efficiently,” Hyatt said.

“I think we live in extraordinary times right now where we’re seeing some incredible inflation rates, things we haven’t experienced since the early ’80s, so we need to make sure as a community, that we’re coming to the table and working this together, pulling in the same direction.

“I really want to avoid the city or the parks ballot … I want to see the ballot that’s best for the community as a whole, cause we’re here to serve the community as a whole.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen said he believes two competing ballot measures would mean a “death sentence for both.”

“I think they would both go down in flames,” Jensen said.

Jensen also suggested creating an ad-hoc committee for council and parks to discuss current issues.

Black, who said he didn’t find out about the city manager’s recommendations until the day of the special meeting, said that the concept of such a committee would likely be welcomed by APRC to improve communication.

“Having two councilors sit down with two (parks) commissioners would be very beneficial,” Black said. “We used to be much more communicative with the city …. There’s hardly any communication right now at all.”

“That communication would be welcome, and I think I can speak for the commission,” he added.

Council took no action on putting forward a ballot initiative of its own, but had consensus that council would discuss the option in a future study session.

“We’ll look into what the appropriate priority for doing that might be,” Lessard said on Tuesday. “I think a study session is really in order here.”

If the city decides to place a referendum on the ballot, the city must submit paperwork to do so by Aug. 19.

In order to put the initiative on the November ballot, paperwork would need to be filed with the Jackson County Clerk’s Office in August.

Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling contributed to this report. 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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