First among equals?

City Administrator Dave Kanner and Mayor John Stromberg are back with hats in hand, asking the Ashland Parks Commission to share its reserve fund with the rest of city government. Give them credit for asking nicely, because legally they don't have to.

Ashland's Parks and Recreation Department is governed by an elected Parks Commission — an unusual situation in Oregon — and has a property tax levy that dates from 1908, when city voters created it. The levy gives the parks department nearly half the property taxes the city collects, with the rest of city government sharing the other half.

That's far more money than the department needs; its budget is about $4 million a year. But because it relies on tax collections rather than the city's general fund, it needs to hold sizable reserves to pay its bills until tax payments start coming in each November.

Kanner and Stromberg have proposed taking $650,000 to $1.8 million from the parks department, dropping its reserves from 25 percent of its budget to 12.5 percent. The parks department gave up $263,000 earlier this year, a transfer Kanner said prevented layoffs in other departments.

Under a "gentleman's agreement," the city Budget Committee has been giving half the tax collections to the parks department, but it is not legally required to do so.

Parks commissioners are understandably reluctant to give up the department's independent revenue source. They point out that Ashland voters created the system in the first place and their wishes should be respected.

There's just one problem with that argument. In 1997, Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 50, which lowered property taxes. It also rolled all separate tax levies into local governments' general funds — a clause most voters didn't realize they were approving.

In Jackson County, that spelled the end of separate levies for the county Historical Society and its library system. Kanner is well-versed in this issue: He was an assistant administrator for Jackson County at the time.

In the case of Ashland parks, no one is suggesting the department should have to cut its budget. That happened to the Historical Society and to the libraries.

Instead, Stromberg and Kanner are proposing to fund operations, equipment, maintenance and other needs from the city's general fund. If the department wanted to provide additional services, it would have to compete against other city departments for the funding.

Planning Commission Chairman Rich Rosenthal, who will take a seat on the City Council in January, says that puts too much power in the hands of the Budget Committee, which consists of city councilors, the mayor and seven appointed public members.

No one seems to have a problem with every other city department justifying its requests to the Budget Committee. But then, no other department is run by a separately elected commission.

Rosenthal and other parks commissioners say the issue should be put to Ashland voters, who want the parks department to remain special and independent.

Perhaps voters should be asked if they want to increase their property taxes to better support the rest of city government so the parks department can keep its special status and its generous reserves.

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