Graham, Kaplan, Hansen invited to update AAUW on Ashland city issues
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
Why the city of Ashland is losing staff and what can be done about it was one of the topics raised at a panel discussion Saturday, Jan. 28, when three newly elected councilors faced questions from American Association of University Women (AAUW) moderator Catherine Lutes and members of the audience.
The atmosphere was convivial as Ashland City Councilors Eric Hansen, Bob Kaplan and Tonya Graham, at the invitation of the Ashland branch’s public policy committee, talked about their priorities before a standing-room-only crowd.
Held at First United Methodist Church’s Wesley Hall in Ashland, the meeting was open to the public.
Hansen and Kaplan are new to the council. Graham, reelected to another term, is serving as council chair in the wake of recent resignations by Mayor Julie Akins and Councilor Shaun Moran.
The sudden resignations and how to deal with them are of upmost concern to the councilors. A special meeting of the council at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, will address the issue.
“At the meeting we will discuss the process of filling the vacant positions,” Kaplan said.
He said he will miss Akins in the top spot.
“I’m disappointed she won’t be serving as mayor anymore. I thank them both (Akins and Moran) for their service,” he said.
Graham said she is not sure whether the council will choose to fill the position of mayor from within the council or from the community when it seeks applications.
“It’s not common to see resignations so soon after an election,” she said, promising the council will deal with it in a timely manner and continue to govern.
Uncertainty in the workplace
Kaplan was first to address the problem of staff attrition. He said while it is part of a national trend, it also is due to conditions specific to the Ashland.
“When there is uncertainty in the workplace, people start looking around,” he suggested.
Contributing to that uncertainty, he said, are inflation, compensation levels, rising costs of living, and a feeling by some staffers that they were falling behind.
“It’s hard to recruit people,” he said. “That’s something we see in private business too.”
Graham acknowledged “The Great Resignation” as a phenomenon coming out of the pandemic. “Ashland is experiencing that too,” she said.
Specifics emerge, however, when digging a little deeper. Graham said that when the city’s Human Resources (HR) department asks people why they are leaving, the reasons run the gamut from economic pressures to morale problems.
Among the reasons given, Graham said, are “instability of leadership, turnover, budget-cut rhetoric, extreme cuts, and (a sense of) lack of appreciation. We really need to be working on making sure people who are working for us are respected and appreciated.”
Hansen agreed, noting that news of city troubles can be difficult to read at times, including the tone of some headlines.
“There has been distrust of the budget and of spending,” Hansen said. “It’s hard for staff. Better communication will help put us on the right path.”
Lack of affordable housing
Some city employees can’t afford to live in Ashland and that also affects staff retention. What can the city do?
Hansen suggests lowering the bar to entry into the market for developers who want to build affordable housing.
Kaplan advocates moving sooner-than-later on state mandates to address affordable housing.
Graham agreed: “We continue to price people out. That impacts hiring as well as diversity,” she said.
One avenue she wants to explore is the use of surplus city property. “We have asked staff how to leverage that to increase affordable housing throughout Ashland,” Graham said.
What about mobile home parks? Is zoning the right way to protect and preserve that type of affordable housing?
Kaplan feels zoning can be part of the solution, but believes forming cooperatives also can help.
“There is a movement across the country for mobile home residents to own their own parks,” he said, which helps them fend off higher rents or having the land sold out from under them.
“The Almeda Fire helped us understand the fragility of mobile home parks,” Graham added. Without zoning, there is nothing to prevent a developer from converting a park into market-based housing.
“Protecting affordable housing that already exists is the best way to protect affordable housing,” she said.
Parks and rec questions
The panel addressed questions about the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, a hot topic in recent months. The city faced diminishing funds for parks, an employee-filed discrimination lawsuit, and an ongoing debate about oversight of the department.
In November’s election, a ballot measure proposed by Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard to place Parks and Recreation employees under the city manager’s office was soundly defeated.
Panel members were unanimous in their support for keeping the department as a separate entity, under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Graham noted that the question about who had authority over the department’s employees was raised after the city changed to the council-manager form of government.
She noted Ashland’s long history of keeping parks and rec separate from other city operations. Ashland voters confirmed they want it to stay that way.
“We need to work collaboratively with parks and rec,” she said. That work will include finding adequate and sustainable funding.
Is the budget out of whack?
The city’s budget has come under considerable criticism from citizens and even members of the city’s budget committee. “Does the budget need to be reined in?” Lutes asked panel members.
Graham said budget problems were exacerbated by the state’s limiting annual increases in assessed values to no more than 3%.
“So that limits tax revenue, too,” she said. “If inflation stays under 3%, we’re OK, but if not, it’s not workable.”
Annual increases for many categories of city expenses — fuel, supplies, health insurance and more — have exceeded 3% in recent years.
“So, it is not so much a case of over-spending as lack of revenue,” she said.
Kaplan argues that the tax system is unfair and part of the problem.
“It’s highly regressive that property taxes are capped,” he said. “Our job is choosing priorities, matching resources to services. We can slash the quality of services, but I don’t think anybody wants that.”
Is there a problem in the ratio of staff and management? One might come to that conclusion in comparing Ashland to other similar-sized cities. But comparisons are problematical when only population is considered. Not all cities have their own electric utility, water treatment plant, internet service and airport.
“The water treatment plant requires little in the way of staff,” Graham said, “but it has a manager. Too often we look for a simple answer that tells us whether we have a problem or not.”
Reinvigorating the economy
The panel was asked what citizens can do to help the economy and further economic development.
“Shop local,” Graham said. “Support the business that is already here.”
She also believes efforts to get local university students more involved in the community will benefit the economy.
Hansen supports a nimble and proactive response to changing economic conditions, such as developing and growing other tourist attractions as Oregon Shakespeare Festival restructures its season to recoup business lost to the pandemic.
He also believes an effective city government will have a positive impact on the economy. “What we’re doing in all our planning can help local business,” he said.
Kaplan wants community planning to consider the needs of Ashland’s growing population, and the services and products people seek.
“We have more and more new residents with children. We need to find ways to appeal to them locally,” he said.
The unhoused population
Councilors were asked about how to deal with and help the homeless in Ashland. A proposal has been floated to utilize the Hargadine garage as a place where the unhoused can sleep in their cars.
“We need to explore use of the garage without (negatively) impacting local business,” Graham said. “But it’s a short-term solution. I am most proud of how we have addressed the problems of the homeless in Ashland. There have been bumps in the road, but we have made progress.” She cited efforts that provided shelter from extreme heat and cold as examples.
Kaplan noted that several churches have provided safe parking for the unhoused in their lots. “Some set up porta-potties,” he said. “It can work, but I agree it’s a temporary solution.”
Hansen said such a program would need to be regulated to make it safe for the public.
“I don’t expect the economic situation to change soon,” he said, “so we need to help.”
Two special meetings
The city has scheduled two special public meetings to discuss priorities for the upcoming biennium and to seek feedback from the community.
A town hall meeting will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30, at the Historic Ashland Armory, at 208 Oak St. There will be small group meetings with elected officials and staff, followed by voting with sticky dots on priorities and objectives.
A special city council business meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, in council chambers at 1175 E. Main St. Council will discuss the process for appointing replacements for the vacancies caused by the recent resignations. The meeting will be televised.
Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.