Commission looking for longterm funding fix
Ashland: Where We Are — Ashland Parks & Recreation
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Longtime Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioner Mike Gardiner announced his resignation earlier this week, adding to an already topsy-turvy time for the Park Commission as they navigate how to keep parks funded long-term.
The commission is working to identify potential revenue sources and could exhaust its reserves if it cannot find a funding fix by the time the next budget cycle begins.
Gardiner, who is in his third term on the commission, was serving as the commission chair up until Wednesday when he announced his resignation effective Jan. 31. His position will be up for election in November. The process to replace Gardiner, whose position is elected by local residents, is still being determined, but a replacement will be appointed by the Ashland City Council, likely with input from Parks & Recreation commissioners.
“It was negatively affecting me, just the relationship with the City Council, and our efforts to sustainably fund parks and the system we have into the future,” Gardiner said. “It’s probably a bad time, but I expect to assist the Parks Commission anyway that I can.”
Gardiner will remain on the Parks Foundation Board and will continue to serve the city’s parks.
It’s the first time in 12 years that the City Council will need to replace a Parks & Recreation Commissioner before their term is up, according to Michael Black, director of the commission.
Black said he was surprised when Gardiner told him of plans to resign.
“It’s a big blow to us because he’s a great source of history,” Black said. “He’s been very dedicated and accessible.
“It’s a huge impact because we do have a lot going on. It’s beneficial for processes and to accomplish things when you have the continuity of knowledge and leadership – We are losing that.”
Black said he respects Gardiner’s decision to step down as Gardiner has spent two decades in public service, including serving on the city’s Planning Commission prior to being elected to the Parks & Recreation Commission.
“Hopefully the replacement will be somebody whose rooted in the community, who has the same goals as the commissioners who ran and were elected, and is dedicated to working to make a great park system,” Black said.
The commission selected Rick Landt to serve as chair and Jim Lewis as vice chair.
“They can definitely fill the shoes,” Black said.
Black anticipates that there will be interest in the position from the community once the word gets out.
“The Parks Commission seats are generally pretty competitive,” Black said.
“Most of the time, the seats have multiple people running for them.”
Anyone with interest in being selected as a replacement can reach out to Black or to City Manager Joseph Lessard. Their contact information is listed on the city’s website.
Commission looking for longterm funding options
Gardiner’s pending departure from the Commission comes at a time when the Commission’s funding is ‘uncertain at best’ as it plans for the next budget cycle.
Since 2019, the Parks & Recreation Commission has had its funding reduced, according to Parks Commissioners, as city expenses have come to outpace revenues.
In an effort to identify workable funding solutions well into the future, Parks & Recreation Commissioners this week discussed a draft letter to be sent to Lessard, appointed as the first city manager for Ashland on Jan. 3, about possible ways to fund its parks long-term by the start of the next budget biennium in July 2023.
The letter outlines the commission’s proposal requesting a levy of $2.09/$1,000 of assessed value, 20 cents higher than the current $1.89 which comes from the city’s general fund, as it looks at how to keep parks maintained.
The levy request, if it had been recommended to go on the May ballot, would cost taxpayers an additional $100 per household per year, based on an average $500,000 Ashland residence.
Black said the $2.09/$1,000 of assessed value was the traditional rate three or four years ago but was reduced to $1.89. If returned to the higher rate, traditional levels of services for parks could return, too, according to Black.
The council has not acted on the levy request, so commissioners have stated their hopes to work with Lessard and council members on alternative funding solutions.
The letter to Lessard emphasizes that commissioners will continue to try to separate the funding requirement for the Parks & Recreation Commission from the city of Ashland.
Parks Director’s optimism rising with new city manager in place
Black’s optimism about finding funding solutions is rising due to Lessard’s role as city manager. Black said Lessard has so far been “very approachable” and “very qualified.”
“Things could change basically because we now have an actual strong city manager running things where a lot of his duties would have fallen to the mayor in the past,” Black said.
Mayor Julie Akins has spoken against funding Parks & Recreation through a higher levy.
“Let’s say you’re living in a house on a fixed income,” Akins told Ashland.news, “you can’t keep paying higher property taxes, higher utility bills.
“(Those homeowners) can afford what they’re paying and not a dime more,” she added. “I stand with keeping spending down because new revenue streams usually involve higher taxes and more fees on your utility bill.”
While Black and Akins disagree philosophically, Black believes having Lessard on board at the city could serve as a catalyst to foster collaboration to find a path forward.
Prior to the city’s change to the charter and the hiring of Lessard, Black believed the Commission might have had to rely on a levy or taxing district for additional revenue.
“He (Lessard) is the CEO of the city and we get our money from the city,” Black said. “I’m excited to work with him … and hoping to work together with him to find solutions to these things.”
City may survey community
Parks & Recreation Director Black is concerned about the future of maintenance service levels of parks in a city known for green oases like Lithia Park. The Parks Commission has talked about conducting a survey allowing the community to weigh in on options about the levels of service they would like to see in their parks.
“I think we owe it to the citizens to look at the options … to say, ‘Would you choose between restoring service levels or cutting service levels, and put that in front of them,” Black said. “There’s a tipping point we are going to get to where we just can’t continue to provide the same level of service without the resources. We do everything we can. Right now, I’m doing two jobs. Most of my staff are doing two jobs because we’re filling in for people who no longer work here because we had to cutbacks and do layoffs.
In an interview with Ashland.news, Black laid out the Parks Commission’s goals surrounding the a proposed citizen survey.
“Our goal would be that we identify potential revenue so that we can continue current (service) levels,” Black told Ashland News.
“Increasing revenue is a very difficult thing because it’s not like we can pull money from outside the community. The money’s going to come from inside the community and the citizens should and are the only ones that can say whether or not that’s appropriate.”
Then, he wants to have a plan in place to, over time, restore service levels back to what they were prior to COVID-19 and reduced levels implemented in 2017.
“The alternative to that is cutting more,” Black said. “And I think we owe it to the city, to the citizens, to look at the options … would you choose between restoring service levels or cutting service levels and put that in front of them so the citizens can decide.”
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.