ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Mayor laments anticipated failure of Ashland measure 15-214 changing Food & Beverage Tax allocation

The Ashland Parks and Recreation office in Lithia Park. Bob Palermini photo
May 18, 2023

Less than 1% margin separated ‘yes’ and ‘no’ totals in election-night count; updated mail vote count expected late Friday 

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news 

Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham says the likely failure of the city’s measure on its Food & Beverage Tax amendment at the ballot box during the May election on Tuesday will have an impact on the city’s ability to staff certain positions related to fire services and homelessness during the current biennium.

The measure trailed by just 40 votes after all ballots received by the county Elections Office by 8 p.m. May 16 were counted. Mailed ballots with a postmark of May 16 or earlier received by the office for a week after the election will continue to be counted. The next vote update will be released at 6 p.m. Friday, May 19, according to a schedule released by the office, but then not again until Friday, May 26, even though eligible votes will need to have arrived at the office Tuesday, May 23. Final, certified results won’t be posted until June 12, according to the schedule. 

Graham shared her thoughts on the estimated outcome — which is too close to call but is being expected to fail by some proponents — with Ashland.news Wednesday afternoon. 

Voters were asked whether the city should amend the ordinance to dedicate more of its revenues to city parks, open space, recreation and senior service purposes, according to the Jackson County Voters’ Pamphlet. 

The likely failure of the measure is “disheartening” for Graham because she believes the measure would have helped the city in general provide services the community needs.

“And it would’ve also helped parks, which is part of the services that the city provides,” Graham said.

As of the final election night report, 50.29 percent of voters cast 3,422 votes against the measure, while 49.71 percent, cast 3,382 tallies in favor.

The goal of Measure 15-214 was to free up revenue in the general fund that would otherwise be spent on Ashland Parks and Recreation Department operations, City Manager Joe Lessard said in an April 28 forum hosted by League of Women Voters. He said the City Council would still retain control over how APRD expenses are budgeted.

Lessard said the Food and Beverage Tax is estimated to generate $3.2 million in revenue this year, while APRD’s annual department budget is $8 million, as previously reported by Ashland.news.

“The last two nights at our Council meetings we spent a significant amount of time talking about the council’s priorities and (how the measure would have) freed up funding in our general fund,” Graham told Ashland.news on Wednesday, “because if the community passed it, we would have (had) to make some adjustments to the budget in the budget process that we’re in, and we have very important elements that are on that priority list, like a fire marshal, like a fire training officer, like additional help for community members to protect their homes against wildfire, and then some of our our affordable housing and support for unhoused people. Those are the top two tiers of that list that we developed. We can’t do those things now because this measure hasn’t passed.”

Graham said likely the question will return to the city’s budget committee about whether the 

city must “switch something out” because of the importance of at least these two positions in the fire department.

“We may have to go in and make other cuts in the budget to make room for these positions if we feel like those are more important than some of the other things that are currently in the general fund,” Graham said. 

She noted there is “strong support” from Ashland City Councilors for making sure the positions can be filled because of the risks of wildfire in the community and the “implications of not having a fire marshal on staff.”

“And so, there’s a whole other conversation that has to happen at the Budget Committee around these couple of positions that were right at the top of the list of what we were going to add if the community passed this measure,” Graham said. “And it (would have) freed up those funds that are in the general fund.”

Currently, the majority of the tax can be used for park capital improvements and paying off road repair loans. Measure 15-214 would have allow up to 73% of revenue to be used for parks operations and maintenance, while 25 percent would remain dedicated to parks capital improvements.

Graham said she wasn’t surprised by the outcome because she fielded a lot of inquiries from individuals in the community who seemed confused by the measure and its impacts.

“Part of the difficulty with this measure is that the Food & Beverage Tax and its history is somewhat complicated,” she said. “When people share information that’s not accurate about it, then voters get confused and when voters are confused, especially around measures that have to do with funding services, they will often stay with the status quo and keep things the way they are.”

“This community ended up making a choice that will affect the level of services that we are able to provide in this biennium at the city,” she added.

She said she believes measure’s opponents, in her opinion, put “forward ideas that were simply not true.”

“We have to do an even better job of helping people understand these complex funding issues, and bridge that barrier so that disinformation is not as effective as it would be,” Graham said.

David Runkel, an opponent of the measure, member of the Citizen’s Budget Committee  and a writer for Ashland Chronicle, spoke to Ashland.news Tuesday evening, following the first release of election results.

“It’s a real surprise there are more ‘no’ votes than there are ‘yes’ votes,” Runkel said. 

If the no votes prevail, the tax will not be extended through Dec. 31, 2040, as proposed by the measure, but will end in December 2030.

“If it holds, I think it’s a terrific vote for the future of the city, because it … allows the City Council to decide where money should be spent,” Runkel told Ashland.news.

Runkel believes it puts a hold on what he believes is “future overspending by the parks department.”

“But we don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” he said. “Too soon to tell.”

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Rick Landt agreed with Graham that the end result of the election will not change with the final tally. He emphasized the measure isn’t a parks initiative but was put forth by Ashland City Council.

“I am disappointed that the strong support of the city leaders was unable to overcome the confusion caused by the campaign slogan of Save Our Parks and the specious arguments that were made,” said Landt in a prepared statement he sent to Ashland.news. “Notwithstanding my disappointment, I believe in our town and believe we can work together to maintain our small town civility and our world class park and recreation system.” 

Landt went on to emphasize that currently, the Food & Beverage Tax can only be used for capital improvements.

“And there are higher needs, like getting our lawns mowed and trash picked up and utility offices opened, so I think that finding a way to unlock this money to be used for what I consider higher needs may or may not occur, but it really isn’t’ up to me, it’s going to be up to the City Council,” Landt said. 

Graham anticipates that dialogue at the city and community level will continue surrounding this issue, and welcomes questions from residents.

“I fully expect there to be another conversation with the community about restructuring the Food & Beverage funding so that we can be able to use it for things that are not capital expenses,” Graham said. “The city remains committed to providing the very best service we can and we will continue to have conversations with this community about the best way to structure the finances at the city and to align the right funding source with the right programming.”

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

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

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

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