Funding dispute threatens city's parks

Over a century ago, citizens of Ashland recognized that a robust parks system positively influences the most essential community attributes: economic development, public safety, environmental stewardship and quality of life. That's why Ashland's municipal government "constitution" — the city charter — established an elected Parks Commission and a dedicated funding mechanism to build, maintain and administer the best possible parks system.

It comes as no surprise Ashlanders still strongly value parks and outdoor recreation. According to the city of Ashland's 2011 citizen survey, a whopping 94 percent rated the community's parks system as "excellent" or "good".

The A-plus report card stems from Ashland's century-long civic investment in parks — an affinity reconfirmed by the 2010 renewal of a prepared meals tax that provides funding for park land acquisition and development.

However, the City Council, the mayor and seven appointed members of the Budget Committee will soon consider scrapping the traditional parks funding methodology and diminish the administrative scope of the Parks Commission in the process.

Contrary to the spirit of the city charter, the proposed changes shift funding recommendations away from the commission's comprehensive open-to-the-public budget process to the city administrator, who will define what "adequate funding" means for our stellar parks system going forward.

City administrators oversee all aspects of budget composition in most communities, but Ashland's approach is designed to protect the importance of parks as they correlate to the vibrancy of our community. This system has paid dividends, with the greatness of Lithia Park serving as a shining example. We have invested too much for too long to risk the legendary quality and allure of the parks system to a subjective process dictated by the whims of a single administrator.

Advocates of the "new arrangement" suggest the city of Ashland is saddled with a dire choice: Alter the funding model for the Parks Department or other city services will be cut and/or employees laid off. However, evidence suggests this scenario is a dramatic overstatement. In fact, parks and recreation funding accounts for only 7.4 percent of the city's total operating budget.

The statewide passage of Measure 47 in November 1996 trumped the city charter, eliminated the commission's tax authority and consolidated property tax disbursements under the discretion of the Budget Committee and the City Council. However, don't confuse state law with a civic mandate. Ashlanders were just fine with the city's existing funding methodology when they voted by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin against Measure 47.

A more pragmatic approach to the perceived parks funding "problem" would be for the City Council to work with the Parks Commission on a win-win funding model that preserves the integrity of the city charter and provides assurance Ashland's stellar parks system will remain on reliable fiscal ground for generations to come.

Ultimately, this is a debate about our city's core values, our municipal resource allocation methodology and whether Ashland citizens still believe the parks stewardship model outlined in the City Charter remains pertinent. This crystal-clear, century-old vision for Ashland's parks shouldn't be jettisoned without broad civic dialogue.

Rich Rosenthal is an Ashland parks and recreation commissioner and Ashland city councilor-elect.

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