Budget Committee approves smaller tax hike

Concerned about the impact of rising gas and food prices on residents, the Citizens Budget Committee voted for a smaller property tax increase than recommended by City Administrator Martha Bennett.

Bennett had recommended a 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value tax increase. She also asked the budget committee to consider raising the city property tax by 34 cents to create a reserve fund because of looming long-term financial problems facing the city. With that increase, the city would have hit the maximum it is allowed to tax.

Instead, a budget committee majority voted to raise taxes 13.5 cents per $1,000 in assessed value.

That will cost the owner of a home assessed at $213,000 &

the median in Ashland &

an extra $28.76 during the fiscal year that starts July 1. Assessed values are lower than market values because of property tax limits passed by state voters.

The tax rate for the city will be $4.08 per $1,000 in assessed value, or $869.04 for the owner of a home assessed at $213,000. That does not include voter-approved levies, such as the levy to supplement hours and services at the Ashland Public Library.

The Finance Department was still calculating the amount of next fiscal year's budget as of press time today. The current year's budget is $91.86 million and Bennett had proposed a $95.17 million budget.

The budget committee is made up of Ashland city councilors, Mayor John Morrison and seven residents.

Resident member Arlen Gregorio argued for increasing the property tax further because the city is dropping below its minimum targets for ending fund balances. He said the city needs to create a cushion to avoid harsh cuts in future years.

"We've been told by our city administrator that in the next five years, things are going to get worse," he said.

But resident member Allen Douma said the city would be building up a cushion for itself by taking away money from taxpayers, who need their own cushion against the worsening economy.

"Simply taking money from their bank account and sticking it in our account isn't necessarily prudent," he said.

Douma said sitting on reserve funds would also be "a slap in the face" to the city employees who are losing their jobs.

Committee members grappled with the budget until 11:30 p.m. on Thursday as they cut money that funds positions.

Ashland Fire and Rescue will lose its fire inspector and the Community Development Department will lose a code enforcement specialist.

"I don't like doing this. It makes me sad. But we have to take steps in this direction," Ashland City Councilor Alice Hardesty said.

Fire Inspector Shawn Branaugh said he fell in love with Ashland's small town charms when he stopped here while traveling and saw the Festival of Light holiday display. He moved to the Rogue Valley to take the fire inspector job, got married, bought a house and now has a baby.

Branaugh said he will have to try and sell his house despite the slow real estate market and look for a job elsewhere, possibly in Portland.

His duties will be handled by the fire marshal and the city's building inspectors, which will likely slow down the processing time for planning applications.

The building inspectors have been working part-time since last year and will continue to do so. They also have been taking on inspections for other cities to bring revenue into Ashland's coffers.

A retiring Ashland Police Department detective will not be replaced, but the budget committee did approve money for hiring a police officer whose responsibility will be Ashland schools.

The budget committee also added an accounting position to the Finance Department to allow for more long-term financial planning, and approved $70,000 for a consultant's study about whether Ashland's pay and benefits for city employees match up against other communities.

That could set the stage for trimming pay and benefits, or conversely, add pressure to increase pay and benefits.

The budget committee spared the full-time worker and part-time worker who manage the popular Community Emergency Response Team program, also known as CERT.

More than 300 volunteers have been trained to respond to emergencies through the program.

The committee approved $198,000 for community and economic planning, but that money will only be spent if the City Council raises the city's lodging tax to provide more funding.

Thursday night's cuts came on top of previous cuts made to the budget, including eliminating funding for several positions.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .

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