City officials are pondering whether to raise city property taxes to their legal limit in order to help fund wildfire fuels thinning in the Ashland watershed.
The tax increase would cost .0892 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.
That would cost the owner of a home assessed at $245,000 — the median in Ashland — an extra $21.85 each year.
The revenue would be used to help fund the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which aims to thin 7,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the forest above town.
That acreage includes portions of the Ashland watershed, the town's major water source.
The multi-year AFR project launched in 2010 with $6.5 million in unexpected money from federal economic stimulus funding, city officials said.
That money will be spent by this fall, they said.
About $1 million is available for AFR from the sale of commercially valuable timber that was recently helicopter-logged from the watershed, city officials said.
However, they estimated $4 million is needed to finish the project.
The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee — which approves a city budget and sets the tax rate — is pondering whether to raise taxes and set aside $175,000 each year as a contribution to help finish AFR.
Mayor John Stromberg said the federal government is more likely to budget money to finish AFR if Ashland "puts some skin in the game" by contributing money as well.
The nonprofit National Forest Foundation also would offer technical and financial help in raising private money to augment city and federal government funding, Stromberg said.
"There's a problem with this project," Stromberg said. "You can't stop in the middle."
Crews must keep working to thin heavy fuel loads in the watershed or all the work that has been done so far will be wasted, he said.
If costly mechanical and manual work to thin the watershed can be completed, the watershed could then be maintained with less costly controlled burns and perhaps naturally occurring wildfires under the right conditions, Stromberg said.
With heavy fuel loads still remaining, the watershed is at risk from a high-intensity, catastrophic wildfire, he said.
After AFR is complete, the city would likely still need to keep contributing $150,000 to $175,000 annually to maintain the treated acres, Stromberg said.
Faced with budget and staffing cuts, the U.S. Forest Service no longer wants to be solely responsible for the 3,400 watersheds that it manages across the nation, according to Stromberg.
The federal agency wants to form partnerships and cost-sharing agreements with local communities, he said.
The city and Forest Service already have been collaborating on AFR for years, along with two other project partners — The Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project.
Citizens' Budget Committee members — who include the mayor, the six-member Ashland City Council and seven residents — will decide next week whether to raise property taxes when they approve a citywide budget and set the tax rate.
The Budget Committee got a briefing on the AFR proposal on Wednesday.
Before raising taxes, City Councilor Greg Lemhouse said Budget Committee members need to look at whether to cut so-called "add packages" — proposed additions to the budget that total up to $1.3 million.
"Is it more important that we fund this (watershed thinning) instead of add packages?" he asked.
Lemhouse noted that once the Budget Committee raises property taxes to their limit, there will be no room in future years to raise taxes to pay for unexpected needs.
"If we do that — that's it," he said.
Ashland Fire & Rescue already has agreed to give up its request for a fire inspector, which was an add package that would've cost more than $60,000 each year.
The fire department instead wants to keep funding Ashland's Firewise program, which aims to reduce fire danger in town.
The Firewise program is an important complement to AFR since fires in town can easily spread into the watershed, city officials said.
Bill Heimann, a resident member of the Budget Committee, said it's absolutely critical that AFR continue, but the city needs to be aware of the burden that increased property taxes would put on residents, especially since a range of utility rate increases are proposed in the coming year.
"Where do the citizens stop being able to afford this? We need to look at what we're adding to the cost of living in this city as a whole," Heimann said.
Roberta Stebbins, chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said it has been healthy for members to talk about AFR in advance of next week's budget meeting.
She said members will expect city staff to come to that meeting with other AFR funding options.
The Budget Committee meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.