Why I voted no on adopting the Ashland budget
As I see it, there are a lot of problems with this budget.
First and foremost, almost entirely, senior staff and various department heads put the budget together with little or no input from the council and mayor. While the budget should represent the goals and values of stakeholders, presenting a 250-page budget to the Budget Committee and not asking for feedback from elected officials who represent the voters quite frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. So, the priorities, goals and values of our constituents weren’t incorporated.
Secondly, despite attempts by some to suggest that this budget has been cut to the bone, Ashlanders know that is simply not true. What is clear is that the total requirements/resources outlined for this budget at $348 million, representing a whopping 10% increase over the last budget, is the largest, frothiest, meatiest budget Ashland has ever seen. There has not been any serious attention given to cutting costs at all. Lip service yes, serious discussion no.
During the process, the Budget Committee was presented with an eye-popping estimated 400 pages of documents over five meetings. Yet the Budget Committee was not given adequate time to discuss proposals put forth to consider changes to it.
The fifth budget meeting was designated as the one where these discussions would occur. However, more than a dozen serious proposals to address reductions or cost savings never came up for discussion or a vote because the meeting had a hard stop. We were told the meeting had to end because the television service could not be extended. We were also told that no additional meetings were scheduled because it was necessary to move forward to meet the council’s schedule. Yet, in my recollection, this budget came before us and was approved at the earliest time in recent city history.
Third, the Budget Committee recommended cutting general fund expenses or adding revenues of $1 million as a first step in dealing with the structural deficit. However, this is to be looked at over the next two years, so it simply reinforces the same “let’s kick the can down the road and hope for the best” approach that got the city into this financial mess to start with. This is a financial crisis as we face a growing fiscal deficit — $15 million to $20 million by 2026, not $1 million — yet incredibly there is still zero sense of urgency in dealing with these pressing budgetary issues.
Fourth, this budget has an illusion of good budgeting. Yes, it is legal as expenditures are offset by revenues, but thank goodness for the $4.4 million from the federal government in the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), without which to paraphrase what Finance Director Melanie Purcell suggested, “the wheels would have fallen off”.
In this budget, its proponents say we are not hiring. But in almost every department in the General Fund, we are increasing staff versus the 2019-2020 actual budget.
In this budget, it is said we are giving ratepayers relief. But outside of the first year of your water bill, all utility rates are increasing over the next two years as outlined in various master plans. The only reason wastewater rates aren’t increasing is because $1.3 million has already been taken out of the wastewater fund.
In this budget, it is said the city is taking to heart belt-tightening and the recommendations of the cost-cut committee. But expenses are set to increase sharply. We are moving forward with a grossly exaggerated capital improvement plan (CIP), which I voted against, that includes first steps to fund a $40 million water treatment plant we don’t need nor can afford.
There is even $70,000 budgeted to provide senior staff with a travel allowance to get to work each day. Surely, people who work for our city have a choice not to live here. But I think the overwhelming majority of Ashlanders would agree that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying senior staff a car travel allowance if they decide not to live in our town. But we do pay for just that.
While campaigning for the November 2020 election, I definitely heard the message of the Ashland voter loud and clear. Citizens didn’t elect us to take the easy road of increasing costs while not doing the work of prioritizing how we spent their money. We can’t as elected officials say that we understand that it is increasingly hard for people to live here, that we sympathize with those who struggle financially with ever increasing living costs yet, at every opportunity, make excuses and then vote to make affordability and livability a real challenge for so many. I can’t support that and I won’t.
What I do know is that the taxpayers of Ashland — the voters who put us in these seats — are smart. They see what’s happening and I’m very glad they do. Hopefully, they will be motivated to act in the 2022 election, a little over one year from now.
For my part, I voted no on adopting the 2021-23 biennial budget.
Shaun Moran is a member of the Ashland City Council.