City debates budget process

Should the city of Ashland's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year remain nearly flat, or should it be tied to existing service levels &

which would mean a higher budget because of rising costs?

That is the question the Citizens' Budget Committee is grappling with as members prepare for the start of another grueling budgeting season.

The committee is made up of seven residents, the six-member Ashland City Council and Mayor John Morrison. Together they will wade through hundreds of pages of financial documents, hear presentations from city department heads about the performance and needs of programs and decide what to cut or add before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

In previous years, city staff presented a budget with built-in spending increases and the budget committee had to search for things to cut.

But in 2007, the City Council decided to reverse that process and had city staff present a relatively flat budget proposal. That gave the budget committee more control over spending as it chose whether to add anything to the baseline budget.

The change was recommended by former budget committee member Jim Moore, Ashland Planning Commissioner John Stromberg and attorney Randall Hopkins.

While the budget was nearly $100.6 million in the 2006/2007 fiscal year, the budget committee approved a $92 million budget for the current fiscal year.

Hopkins recently urged city staff and budget committee members to use the same process again to help rein in the coming fiscal year's budget.

"Sure, the city's costs are increasing. Welcome to the club. So are everybody else's costs, including all the citizens and businesses that the city will turn to to pay the bill," he wrote in a recent e-mail.

Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said this week that there is debate among budget committee members about whether to have a proposed budget from staff that uses the baseline approach, or whether to tie the budget to existing services.

City staff have proposed that they create a budget based on existing services and identify possible revenue streams. If those funding sources aren't acceptable, the budget committee could make cuts, Tuneberg said.

But several budget committee members said it's easier to start with a smaller budget and then add on if need be.

"That's probably easier from their perspective," Tuneberg said. "Rather than making a motion to cut three positions out of fire, what they're saying is, 'Management has to do that.'"

Last year, City Administrator Martha Bennett asked Ashland Fire Rescue, the Police Department and the Community Development Department to identify cuts.

The city faces long-term budget troubles as the growth of costs outpaces the growth of revenues.

Bill Heimann, a resident member of the budget committee, said he would like to see department heads propose cuts since they know more about their departments than committee members.

"It's never the responsibility of the budget committee and City Council to micro-manage," he said.

Allen Douma, a new resident member of the budget committee, said his inclination also is to start with a flat budget.

"If you do it the other way, our hands are tied basically. I would rather add on. Of course, I understand that it's always easier to give then to take, especially when the taking is taking away people's positions or salary and benefit increases," he said.

But Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas is advocating that the city budget be based on maintaining existing services. He said it seems fair to allow the budget to increase slightly to adjust for the increased cost of living and rising fuel costs.

"I don't like seeing our service levels cut back severely. I have seen a lot of pressure to cut back on important programs," Navickas said.

Starting with a higher budget and then asking the budget committee members to propose any cuts empowers the elected councilors and appointed residents to make decisions, rather than leaving those hard choices to city staff, he said.

Regardless of which way the budget committee kicks off the budgeting process, resident member Dee Anne Everson said anyone who has thoughts about the city's finances should share his or her views.

The earlier people speak up, the easier it will be for budget committee members to listen and to adjust how they put together the complex puzzle that is the budget, she said.

"This is the community's budget. While volunteers are appointed to serve alongside elected officials, there's plenty of room for public input. If people have a point of view during the process, this is when we want that input heard. Don't wait until the end,"

she said. "This is the time when people can really effect change in a positive way. So I say, 'Come on down.'"

The budget committee's kick-off meeting is at 7 p.m.

on Wednesday, Feb. 13, in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St. Members will elect a chairperson, schedule meetings for the budgeting process and discuss how to approach the budget.

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