By Myles Murphy Ashland Daily Tidings
The Ashland Citizens Budget Committee has approved the city’s 2003-04 budget, voting down two members with serious reservations who opposed the move.
Committee members Dave Williams and Jim Moore did not support the budget, which proposes a more than $5 million drop in ending-fund balances across various departments because the city expects to spend more than it brings in.
“It’s a real concern,” Williams said. “It leaves me wondering about the future.”
The $87.4-million budget passed Thursday on an 11-2 vote. The Ashland City Council will consider the recommended budget next month.
“While we talk (about making cuts) every year, we don’t seem to be reducing the budget,” Moore said.
The projected budget calls for a $478,000 drop in the city’s general fund reserve money, along with decreases in other funds.
The reserves are intended to be used as a cushion when needed, and cities are required to maintain certain reserve levels for just that purpose.
However, at this rate, the city would be facing a significant deficit down the line. City Administrator Gino Grimaldi and Finance Director Lee Tuneberg have been highlighting that point since the start of the process, and assured the committee they will manage the budget as needed in the future to keep it balanced.
The budget assumes a 40 percent increase in PERS costs, a 20 percent hike in health care premiums, along with significant but unknown jumps in wholesale electricity rates.
The budget is $4.4 million smaller than the 2002-203 $91.8 million budget – the last in a long line of ever-increasing budgets.
The drop in the total budget is a little misleading, however, since much of it is attributed to the completion or near-completion of citywide construction projects.
To offset some of the increases, the position of Administrative Services Director has been cut, resulting in significant savings, and proposed positions in the police, fire and other departments have been put on hold this year. A proposed assistant city attorney position was reduced to part time.
On the other hand, the committee decided to put up $133,000 to pay for grounds maintenance in the Ashland School District, taking some pressure off the budget-challenged schools. The committee also shied away from making cuts in grants given to local social service organizations.
“The same time (service groups) are getting cutbacks, the need is growing dramatically,” Committee member Russ Silbiger said. “We need to step up.”
The committee Thursday added another $25,000 to the more than $100,000 it has recommended be given to 13 groups active in the city. The extra funds are a one-year-only grant and will go mainly to Community Works and the Interfaith Care Community of Ashland, which provides homeless services in the city.
“That was really a blessing,” ICCA Executive Director Sharon Schrieber said. “Every time I attend a budget committee meeting, I’m holding my breath.”
The committee also recommended the Ashland City Council re-examine the distribution of hotel-motel tax revenues, with an eye toward reducing the annual increases in funds which go to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The chamber’s grant alone has grown by $100,000 in four years while most other groups are suffering under state and federal budget cuts.
“(Chamber and OSF grants) have seen such a great gain, I think its a good thing to take another look at the formula,” Ashland Mayor and committee member Alan DeBoer said.
Committee member Alex Amarotico, an Ashland City Council member, was the only one opposed to even looking at the idea.
“I think we need to give OSF and the Chamber credit for what they’re doing that’s working,” Amarotico said.
The committee set property tax rates for 2004 at $3.564 per $1,000 of assessed value, plus another $1.38 per 1,000 of assessed value if the Youth Activities Levy passes in the May 20 election.
Fee increases in the new budget include a 3 percent increase for cable TV fees, 5 percent for water fees, 6 percent for transportation and storm drain utility fees, 7.5 percent in electric rates, 10 percent in building fees and a 30 percent increase in the city’s electric surcharge.
Allen Douma, a syndicated medical columnist who has lived in Ashland for a year, attended each full budget committee meetings – two day-long Saturday meetings and three three-hour Thursday meetings – as well as a few subcommittee meetings. Douma would like to someday join the committee, and he believes the group’s work is reflected in the success of the city.
“I was very impressed with the level of detailed discussion that took place,” Douma said. “It was refreshingly different from other budget meetings I’ve seen.”