The Citizens' Budget Committee has approved a two-year $201,347,863 budget for the city of Ashland that keeps city property tax rates flat.
Mayor John Stromberg and City Administrator Dave Kanner had advocated raising property taxes to their limit — a move that would have cost a typical homeowner about $22 extra a year — to raise money for continued wildfire fuels thinning in the Ashland Watershed.
However, a majority of Budget Committee members were reluctant to vote Wednesday night to raise taxes, especially after the Ashland City Council voted on Tuesday to raise both sewer and water rates by 10 percent, and to increase storm drain and street fees by 3 percent each.
The Budget Committee is made up of councilors, the mayor and seven appointed residents.
"I'm feeling sensitive today about imposing additional taxes," Councilor Pam Marsh said during Wednesday night's budget meeting, noting that she had voted for the fee increases that fund city infrastructure.
Instead of raising taxes, a majority of Budget Committee members recommended that the council find another way to get $175,000 to help fund watershed thinning.
Since Ashland usually underspends the money it budgets, money could come from those savings, members said.
The U.S. Forest Service, the city, Lomakatsi Restoration Group and The Nature Conservancy are working on a multi-year project to thin 7,600 acres of Forest Service land in the forest above town.
Economic stimulus dollars that paid for a solid start on the project are running out and the Forest Service is suffering budget woes.
City officials are hopeful they can win more federal funding if the city offers to kick in $175,000 annually for continued watershed thinning.
About $4 million is needed to complete the work, and then $150,000 to $175,000 is needed annually thereafter to keep wildfire fuels in a reduced state, according to city estimates.
A minority of Budget Committee members tried in vain to trim spending from the budget, but each item held up as a target for cuts had its defenders.
A majority of Budget Committee members voted to hire a code compliance officer at a cost of almost $60,000 a year, spend $10,000 on a trails master plan that could reduce dangerous conflicts between hikers and downhill mountain bike enthusiasts, budget $100,000 over two years for a help center for homeless and needy people and spend $50,000 for a water rate study.
Members of the Ashland Lodging Association had lobbied heavily for a code compliance officer, whose duties will include cracking down on homeowners who are illegally renting out their homes to tourists for short stays.
That practice is allowed in some zoning districts with appropriate permits and licenses, but many vacation-rental-by-owner operations, as they are known, are operating under the radar or illegally.
They aren't collecting city lodging tax revenue and are siphoning off business from licensed lodging operations, according to the Ashland Lodging Association.
Lodging tax revenue helps fund city operations, tourism promotion and other activities.
The Budget Committee did vote to put some limits on spending for a Downtown Study that will look at parking, traffic, bike and pedestrian issues.
The study, which is estimated to cost $50,000 to $100,000, must be paid for with parking fines and downtown parking garage revenue, not any city general fund money, according to the committee vote.
Earlier in the budget process, Ashland Fire & Rescue rescinded its request to hire a fire inspector, which would have cost more than $60,000 annually.
Instead, the fire department will use that money to continue its Firewise program, which has been funded by federal money funneled through Jackson County to Ashland. That funding will dry up later this year, fire officials said.
While forest thinning above town is meant to protect the Ashland Watershed from wildfire, the Firewise program focuses on the town itself by encouraging responsible home construction and landscaping, as well as homeowner preparedness.
The Budget Committee denied a request from the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission to continue giving the parks system half of property tax revenues.
Property taxes will go into overall city government coffers, with the city then giving money to the parks department.
The semi-independent parks department had its own tax authority for almost 100 years, but that was erased when Oregon voters approved property tax reform measures in the 1990s.
Until now, the city had continued to give the parks department half of property tax revenues under an informal agreement.
Parks officials have acknowledged that the overall city budget planned for the next two years does meet parks needs, but they are concerned about future years and a loss of control over funding.
The City Council will hold a public hearing and consider adopting the two-year budget during a meeting that starts at 7 p.m. on June 4 in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.
If given final approval, the budget goes into effect on July 1. This is Ashland's first attempt at crafting a two-year budget.
Annual budgets previously hovered around $100 million each year.
The unchanged city property tax rate is almost $4.20 per $1,000 in assessed value.
The owner of a house with an assessed value of $245,000 — the median in Ashland — will pay $1,028.31 in city property taxes.
Those city taxes don't include other taxes, like those for separate, voter-approved levies to supplement library operations in Ashland or pay for a new Fire Station No. 2.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.