Park funds are city's to manage

Ashland parks commissioners may have a sense of déjà vu over the news that new City Administrator Dave Kanner wants to move some money from the Parks Department budget to the city's general fund.

There is precedent for this move, which explains the feeling we've seen it before. Jackson County did something similar with Southern Oregon Historical Society funds several years ago. The county library system also saw its funding affected.

The difference this time is that it appears the Ashland Parks Department budget will survive relatively unscathed.

First, the history: In 1997, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 50, which limited property taxes that could be collected by local governments. Buried in the language of that initiative was a clause that affected special levies — many of them also voter-approved — that funded a variety of government services.

The Historical Society benefited from a permanent levy passed half a century before. The library system relied on a serial levy that voters had agreed to renew every few years. The Ashland Parks Department also had a voter-approved levy.

Unbeknownst to many voters, Measure 50 rolled all those special levies into the overall tax base of the local government, giving county commissioners control over the historical levy funds and the library money. The Ashland City Council was now responsible for the parks levy.

Under an informal agreement since 1997, the city of Ashland has split the parks levy half and half with the Parks Department. Kanner proposed to continue that split, but with a catch.

Kanner — who was an assistant administrator for Jackson County when the Historical Society levy was in the news — says the Parks Department has enough money in reserve that it can afford to give some of it to the rest of city government. To be exact, he wants $263,000.

Kanner points out that he is proposing a parks budget that gives the department what it has requested, plus more set aside for deferred maintenance than the department asked for. But he wants to take the $263,000 from the department's ending fund balance, reducing that amount to the citywide standard of 25 percent.

He also notes the transfer to the city's general fund will avoid layoffs in other city departments or a property tax increase.

The Parks Commission is balking, citing the city's long tradition of supporting parks and vowing to take the fight to the Budget Committee next month.

It's a fight the commission probably should lose, for the good of the city as a whole. The Parks Department isn't being appreciably hurt by Kanner's proposal, and the plan will avoid painful decisions in other departments — or a general tax increase.

But we think the City Council should address the issue of the parks levy and how it should be handled going forward. Legally, the city has no obligation to do that. It could take all the parks levy money if it wanted to. But given the long-standing "gentlemen's agreement" and the fact that few voters knew about the special-levy clause of Measure 50, it's the right thing to do.

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