Mayor: Grant funding likely key to making progress on homelessness, wildfire readiness, other issues
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
The annual Ashland city town hall gathering Wednesday evening largely focused on a speech from Mayor Tonya Graham celebrating successes for the city over the previous year.
Graham opened her speech by asking the audience of roughly 150 people in the Rogue River Room at the Southern Oregon Stevenson Union Wednesday to open a website. On the site, attendees were invited to submit a single word to describe Ashland. On a projector screen, colorful words populated and showed a conflicted image of the city.
Safe. Scary. Slow to adapt. Progressive. Beautiful. Opportunity. Expensive. Struggling. Evolving.
“We are all of those things, here in Ashland. And what we see up here is both the things that are working well for us and the things we need to work on,” Graham said.
She described Ashland as a “Community on the move,” busy reinventing itself. Speaking to challenges near the end of her speech, she pointed to emerging problems without easy solutions.
“Local government is being called on to address new issues that are outside of typical public safety and infrastructure responsibilities. Issues like wildfire risk reduction, homelessness, affordable housing and climate all land at the feet of communities like ours — and they arrive without the resources to address them,” she said.
She emphasized creativity, learning while doing and seeking resources from grants or partnerships as the future for the city. Last year, Ashland won $3.7 million in grants, she said.
The mayor highlighted a long list of accomplishments from all departments of the city.
For the city manager’s office, Graham listed the purchase of the property at 2200 Ashland St. to provide shelter, the creation of a child care affordability grant program and the adoption of a new sister city, Sviatohirsk, Ukraine.
Also under the umbrella of the city manager’s office, Graham said the city has established a Joint Emergency Operations Center with Southern Oregon University and the Ashland School District, developed emergency preparedness training for city staff, and installed signs marking all 10 evacuation zones in Ashland.
The city’s Human Resources department hired 50 new staff last year, bringing the city’s staffing numbers up to its pre-Covid levels while also bringing city staff’s high turnover rate down to normal. For the Community Development Department, Graham cited their success in creating the first housing production strategy in the state of Oregon and approving the construction of 114 new residential units.
The Public Works Department completed the Wastewater Treatment Plant Outfall Relocation Project which, she said, protects native fish from adverse outfall water temperatures. The department also installed solar trackers at the city’s Civic Center which will provide backup power in the event of an emergency.
The Ashland Police Department answered 32,753 calls for service, she said, while also keeping its violent crime clearance rate at 69%. The Ashland police also established a new targeted patrol area in the Ashland Street business corridor.
Ashland Fire & Rescue responded to 5,557 calls for service while also offering mutual aid to Mercy Flight’s ambulance service area 137 times. The department also expanded the Wildfire Risk Assessment Program, created a single-role team for responding to medical calls, and completed prescribed burning on 544 acres in the watershed and 35 acres adjacent to 100 homes, Graham said.
The city’s Electric Department added three new electric vehicle charging stations, implemented new strategies to reduce wildfire risk and negotiated with the Bonneville Power Association to prevent rate increases.
The city’s Finance Department has changed how it handles cash investments leading to $1 million in savings for the city. Under the umbrella of this department, Graham addressed a long term frustration for Ashland residents — utility billing.
“I pay my utility bill too, and I understand it has been hard to be patient as the department regains its footing,” she said.
The department was at one time reduced to a single staff member and required a “system upgrade,” she said. The finance department is training three new staff members and will soon create new customer service hours and reopen phone lines.
Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission purchased 38 acres of land for trail connectivity and wildfire prevention last year, Graham said. The commission also created a new ordinance to allow for controlled alcohol in parks, rehabilitated the Oak Knoll Golf Course, and installed new irrigation systems for water conservation.
APRC’s Senior Center now sees an average of 1,500 visitors per month and, through a partnership with the Rogue Valley Council of Governance, 300 meals are served at the Ashland Senior Center with an additional 900 meals delivered to the homes of older adults per month, Graham said.
At the close of her speech, Graham outlined a positive vision for the city.
“There is no shortage of good work to be done, and here in Ashland, we are not afraid of hard work,” she said.
Along the walls of the room were the same large posters used at last year’s town hall event — inviting attendees to vote by placing blue stickers under their favorite parks, events, or facets of city business where they would like to see more attention.
At a series of tables along the side of the room, representatives from city departments such as Emergency Services, Public Works, or volunteers with Ashland Parks and Recreation were waiting for conversation or questions from attendees. After the speech, the majority of the crowd dispersed to voting at the posters or left the event while a few remained to ask questions of available staff.
Attendees questioned about the mayor’s speech offered a largely positive reception.
“I thought it was right on point, it touched on all of the important issues that the city is trying to improve on,” said Kimberly Kuwabara.
“I think that was all very good. I think she probably could have drawn more on some of the issues the city has been facing, particularly the homelessness issue. … I know the city is addressing it in several ways. I think maybe more time could have been spent on that,” said John Herochik.
But aside from the challenges, the successes were “good for a citizen to hear,” he said.
The event was broadcast live by RVTV and will be available online along with the results of this year’s sticker poll on the city of Ashland site, according to Dorinda Cottle, communications officer for the city of Ashland.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com.