The Ashland Community Development Department may avoid more staff cuts after losing three people earlier this year due to the economic recession and a fall-off in construction.
The department's budget would drop from an adopted budget of $2.11 million for the current fiscal year to $1.87 million for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.
Community Development Director Bill Molnar is proposing no further staff cuts so that workers can deal with remaining construction activities as well as long-range planning.
One of their long-range planning tasks is preparing for the redevelopment of the former Croman Mill site. With 27.25 acres of buildable land, the area east of Tolman Creek Road could host 1,900 office workers, 950 light industrial workers and 20 commercial workers once it's fully built out, according to a draft Croman Mill Site Redevelopment Plan.
While construction activity has fallen in the past few years, the Community Development Department has seen an uptick in people seeking building permits in the past six weeks, Molnar said.
"There's still long-term confidence in Ashland's residential and commercial real estate market," he told members of the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee on May 6.
The Budget Committee will meet at 6 p.m. on Thursday to make its decisions on what to cut and what to save across all city departments. That meeting will be held at the Ashland Civic Center, 1175 E. Main St.
The Budget Committee is made up of Ashland City Councilors, residents and Mayor John Stromberg.
Resident and Budget Committee member Lynn Thompson said she understands that the city doesn't want to lose experienced planners during slow times. But she asked whether the Community Development Department should take more cuts.
"We've had some reductions in Community Development, but those are fairly modest, in my view," she said.
Molnar said long-range planning can pay off in the end.
"Communities that have invested in long-range planning are more resilient," he said.
Other cities that have let their communities sprawl are having trouble keeping up with infrastructure costs, Molnar said.
Ashland City Councilor David Chapman questioned whether the city should still be spending money on affordable housing when Budget Committee members agreed to prioritize areas such as emergency needs, meeting state and federal mandates and dealing with the basic needs of residents.
Councilor Carol Voisin said state and federal governments do see housing as a priority, as do many Ashland residents.
"There is a real need and a concern," she said.
In fall 2008 and this spring, the city of Ashland received a total of $510,367 in federal grants that the city has earmarked for a 60-unit affordable project on Clay Street.
The Jackson County Housing Authority, which teamed with the city on the project, hopes to win $11 million in state housing money to start the project, which could create local jobs for road and home builders as early as this year.
But to buy land for the project, the City Council traded city land valued at up to $1.7 million and kicked in $700,000 in cash. The Housing Authority contributed $1.2 million.
The Community Development Department also has a housing program specialist on its staff.
Resident and Budget Committee member Allen Douma said he's concerned that many middle-income workers like city employees, teachers and medical personnel can't qualify for affordable housing help because they earn too much — even though they can't afford to buy homes in Ashland on their own.
"Oftentimes, the cut-offs are below their salary range," Douma said.
Senior Planner Brandon Goldman said some of Ashland's affordable housing is available to people who make up to 120 percent of the area's median income, although most homes are for people who earn 80 percent of area median income or less.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.