Budget presents challenge

"Can Ashland afford Ashland?"

That is the question Citizens' Budget Committee member Dennis Slattery is asking. It's the same question the rest of the committee will have to weigh as the city of Ashland faces a difficult budget situation.

The budget committee met Thursday night to get its first overall view of the city's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

City staff have proposed increasing this year's $91.86 million budget to $95.17 million for the next fiscal year.

To pay for that, property taxes would have to increase 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value. That would cost the owner of a home assessed at $213,000 &

the median in Ashland &

an extra $61.77 per year.

Assessed property values are lower than market values because of property tax limitations passed by Oregon voters.

Utility bills for sewer, water and other services would also rise, costing a typical household about $26.40 more per year.

A household would pay slightly less, about $2.16 next year, for the levy that supplements hours and services at the Ashland Public Library.

The net impact on a homeowner with a house at the median assessed amount would be an additional $86 for the coming fiscal year.

Even with the increased property taxes and utility rates, the city of Ashland would cut services and eat into the money it keeps as a cushion against unforeseen problems.

"Our expenditures &

like everyone in America is experiencing right now &

are going up faster than our revenues," City Administrator Martha Bennett said.

Bennett told budget committee members she is not only recommending a 29 cent increase in property taxes, but she believes the committee should consider raising taxes by 34 cents per $1,000 in assessed value.

The city would hit the ceiling on the amount it is allowed to set for property taxes.

Bennett said without a change in financial forecasts, the city will need to raise property taxes to their 34-cent maximum limit for the fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2009. She recommended the budget committee consider raising the property tax rate to its limit for this coming fiscal year and then set the money aside in a reserve fund.

Even with a 29 cent property tax increase, the city would cut services. Net staffing levels would remain flat.

Among the cuts, the Parks and Recreation Department would eliminate the men's softball program, the Garfield Park craft program and night movies on the Oak Knoll Public Golf Course driving range. It also plans to reduce other programs and increase rental fees for events such as weddings.

The Daniel Meyer Pool would open two weeks later than usual and be closed on the Fourth of July.

The parks department would use employees from a temporary agency for seasonal work and shift workers to a Preferred Provider health insurance plan. Those plans are standard in the private sector.

Two positions would also be eliminated.

The parks department would cut $82,600 from the amount it gives the city to fund police patrols.

The Ashland Fiber Network will delay plans to build a Wi-Max wireless Internet service for the town. On the bright side, AFN's business plan projected the department could contribute $200,000 in the coming year toward payments on its $15 million debt. AFN will actually be able to contribute $356,000.

Ashland Fire Rescue could add a $250 fee for ambulance services. Federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates don't cover the cost of providing ambulance services. Meanwhile, demand is increasing because of Ashland's aging population.

A vacant police officer position and a vacant division fire chief position would be cut.

After cuts last year, the city's Community Development Department is facing only minor reductions for the coming fiscal year. While construction has slowed throughout the country, development fees for the city have been buoyed by voters' November 2007 passage of a $46.8 million bond to rebuild Ashland schools.

If the budget committee doesn't approve the 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed value property tax increase, the city would make more cuts.

A further round of reductions would eliminate the popular Community Emergency Response Team program, in which residents are trained by emergency workers to take care of themselves, their neighbors and the community during disasters.

Getting rid of the CERT program would save the city $82,298, but it would also lose $46,366 in grants that help pay for the program.

A fire inspector, police officer, detective and code enforcement specialist would be cut as well if taxes are not raised.

In a letter to the city, resident Karen Darling said she is a senior citizen living on a fixed income. She said continual tax increases are making it difficult for seniors, young families and low and middle income people to live in Ashland.

"I want to stay in Ashland, and in my home that I have owned for many years. I love it," Darling wrote in her letter. "My family was some of the first settlers in the mid 1800s. I have deep roots here and will do what I can to stay. However, every year of increases makes me think that it won't be possible. Please consider other options for funding our vital city needs."

During its next meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday in the Ashland Civic Center, 1175 E. Main St., the budget committee will hear presentations from the police, fire and community development departments.

The budget committee &

which is composed of the mayor, Ashland City Council and residents &

will continue meeting to review the budget until May 14. Final City Council approval of a budget is scheduled for June 17.

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

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