Capital projects reduced

The city's list of proposed capital improvement projects is much smaller than in years past, providing evidence of the national recession's local impact.

Public Works Director Mike Faught told the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee on Monday his department plans to spend an estimated $3.5 million on such projects for the 2009-10 fiscal year, down from the $11 million figure proposed in 2008-09.

The figures do not represent how much money is actually spent, but how much the department figures it can spend without stretching its budget.

Capital works projects include maintenance to roads, water and sewer facilities, as well as the purchase of equipment for the city.

"Funds are not there to spend on projects," Faught told the committee. The meeting covered budget projections for road maintenance, water and sewage treatment for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Street repair

Faught told the committee $460,000 in federal stimulus money would go toward local road improvements. Sections of Laurel, Iowa and Nevada streets will all receive resurfacing treatment, through funds allocated by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Roads that fall into disrepair are classified by ODOT as needing either "overlay" or "reconstruct" work. Overlay is the resurfacing of streets to fix cracks. Reconstruction is much more time consuming — and costly. The oldest streets are those most in need of reconstruction, but ODOT has mandated the prioritization of overlay streets for federal stimulus money as a cost-saving measure.

"To me, that seems to say, 'We're going to let bad roads get worse, and fix the not-so-bad roads first,'" said budget committee member Allen Douma.

Water and Sewage

Faught expressed his concern for the potential lack of manpower that could hamper his department in coming years. One-third of his staff will reach the retirement-eligible age of 55 within the next five years.

"There aren't enough people being trained to work in the treatment plants," he said.

Water and sewage rates rose 10 and 20 percent, respectively, after the city council consented to utilities rate hikes effective April 20. The increases were made to address a shortage in funds to pay for the wastewater treatment plant. Committee members generally agreed that another 10 percent increase in water bills for 2010-11 was inevitable. But that figure could quadruple if voters reject the city's food and beverage tax, which is set to expire in 2010.

The 5 percent tax on restaurants has been a major source of divisiveness since being approved by voters in 1993. Eighty percent of the tax money collected goes toward paying off the debt on Ashland's treatment plant, and city officials estimate that debt will be paid by 2023, provided the tax is extended.

"If you lose it you have to make up that revenue," Faught said.

Equipment and services

Public Works set aside $334,000 for the purchase of new vehicles for the city. More than two-thirds of that would pay for the purchasing of a new bucket truck for the electric department. Bucket trucks are used to repair damaged electric wires by elevating a worker high into the air.

Some committee members were skeptical of the high cost in purchasing a new one, but Mike Morrison with Public Works defended its importance as vital to the safety of their workers.

"That truck has already been delayed one year," Morrison said, adding, "There's a lot of liability in a truck like that."

The department also wants to buy two trucks — a 1999 Ford Ranger and a 2000 Ford F250 — as well as a new police patrol car. The estimated total of these three vehicles is $74,000.

Other cost-saving measures the committee proposed include cutting custodial services from three times a week to twice a week, and reducing the amount of water the cemetery uses by 11 percent.

The Citizens' Budget Committee is a 14-member board made up of Mayor John Stromberg, the six city councilors and seven citizen committee members. The group meets between December and May to draw up a budget for the coming fiscal year.

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