Put on a happy face and join Ashland's city leaders as they parade around the new budget for 2007 '08. The financial health of the City is good overall, says City Administrator Martha Bennett and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg in the latest budget message. "Good" is a step up from "adequate," which was the message last fiscal year. But the overall budget decreased from last year's $100 million to $91 million. That's where it was in 2005 - '06.

The flat-lining of Ashland's finances have had Tuneberg singing the same old song for several years. He's whistling it again this year, with a smile.

"It's not different than what I've been saying for — or 4 years," Tuneberg said, referring to the budget message. "We have some challenges here in our finances. But we also have some enviable aspects of our finances that other communities would like to have.

"We're in pretty good health. And we have a stronger local economy than many others. But that doesn't mean we don't have problems with revenue streams and some services we provide. I mean we're used to great services here. You have lots of neat things going on and we have departments that give great service.

"But sometimes our costs outweigh our revenue streams and that's what we saw this last budget year."

Limited growth - limited revenue

One of the more troublesome spots in this year's budget is the lack of sufficient revenues from the planning department, coupled with the coming crisis in emergency services.

Due to lack of federal reimbursements for certain services and the limited ability to recoup costs of operating an ambulance service for an aging community, the city is seeking creative remedies for a coming financial catastrophe. The ever-increasing costs of operating ambulance services (more than $2 million this year) outweigh any hope of financial viability.

"We've got an ambulance service and federal mandates that say we can only collect so much and our costs are rising and our revenue's been capped," Tuneberg said. "So, how do you make that gap smaller or make it go away? We probably will never make it go away." Former Mayor Cathy Shaw says the ambulance service is a necessary part of the city and the cost of running it ought to be shouldered by all residents to maintain the level of services.

"I would suggest that maybe it would be a good idea for us all to subscribe to ambulance service," Shaw said. "The seniors have an opportunity to subscribe at $35 a year, what if we all subscribed?"

Revenues down

Another creative solution is needed for the loss of both revenue and leadership in the planning department. With the departure of Community Development Director David Stalheim and the upcoming departure of Public Works Director Paula Brown, Bennett has her hands full seeking ways of halting the hemorrhaging that is impacting the budget two-fold by decreasing revenues while draining the general fund. She is considering a reorganization of both departments.

ABOUT THIS SERIES —

The resignation of Planning Director David Stalheim has increased the number of vacated city leadership positions to three. Coupled with on outpouring of criticism from residents over the council’s decision to undergo five months of professional training and counseling, public concern over the state of the city is high.



The Tidings conducted a two-week investigation into the workings of the council and its relationship to City Hall, presented here in four parts.



: Ashland’s dysfunctional council: A series of interviews with former and current city leaders suggests the council is failing to operate effectively as a group. City staff is overwhelmed with the agendas of some individual members of the council. Stress is high and decison-making is low.



: The resignation of David Stalheim is the tip of the iceberg for a planning department drifting far behind its revenue goals and swimming amid accusations of distrust and influence.



: As the Ashland Police Department’s problem broke into public view in a well-publicized clash between officers, their chief and the city, turnover was rampant and morale was down. But a healing change came quickly with a new leader.



TODAY: Several departments in the city face staffing and economic problems, including a frustrated fire department that has taken its appeal directly to voters and a two-person legal staff lacking a permanent leader.





Despite it all, the future does look promising as a new group of city leaders seeks to bring about lasting change.

"Does turnover affect the bottom line?" Bennett said. "Yes and no. We're less efficient because we're spending money on recruiters, but that's not the big deal. The big deal is the cost we can't quantify. There's no way to tell you how much productivity we lose because we lose a department head, and we have a transition. And then we spend a lot of time bringing people up to speed."

Running hard

Staffing is a problem in most every city department, which means the city isn't always able to immediately replace the personnel it loses &

and when it does there is the time needed to "bring them up to speed." The slowdown has an associated cost, especially in the face of increased workloads. The planning department is where increased workloads on a small staff have created a net effect of stagnation.

"Right now the Administrative Assistant Susan Yates is working half-time," Stalheim said. "So we have two cases that are soon to be appealed to LUBA (Land Use Board of Appeals). One case has 800 pages in record that we have to go through and process and make four sets of it. I mean the amount of time spent by a staff person just putting that record together is incredible.

"And so the amount of time that we spend on every permit application and every notice within the department ... I've never seen anything that's as cumbersome as this community is."

Although the budget shows that Ashland is financially healthy overall, a closer look reveals that a smaller staff is running hard to keep up with the ever-growing mountain of minutiae threatening to overtake the pace of workers. Nowhere is that more evident than in the former finance department. Tuneberg says his biggest challenge is keeping up with the workload as his entire department has expanded to take on new responsibilities, while staffing problems persist.

"Since I got here we're no longer the finance department," Tuneberg said. "We're now the Administrative Services Department. There's lots of different things going on whether you're doing budget or financial reports or studies, rate models, capital improvement, issuing bonds, working on HR (Human Resources) issues, courts, parks accounting, parking enforcement, there's always more."

Parking enforcement was once the duty of the police department. After it was outsourced, it became contract management. That's Tuneberg.

Turnover

A city report shows transition is common in a number of departments. Since 2004, the police department lost 20 personnel, fire lost 13, public works/engineering lost nine, finance eight, legal seven.

Today, the legal department consists of Richard Appicello, an assistant city attorney who just celebrated his first year anniversary with the city buried under an avalanche of litigation. With the departure of City Attorney Mike Franell this past spring, Appicello is now serving as interim city attorney. He is assisted by a temporary secretary. It wasn't quite what he expected when he decided to come here.

"My moving to Ashland was an attempt to get a life, Appicello said. So it's been less than fulfilling because Mike Franell left and I've been in this situation.

"We have a lot of things going on. It's kind of overwhelming. We have a lot of litigation right now associated with local improvement districts. It's the thing that weighs heavily on my mind. There are lots of other important things to be done, which legal staff as well as city staff in general, are distracted from doing while we chase down litigation."

Budget busters

While the city seeks remedies to increasing financial difficulties, the city council is also paying attention, in particular to the economic impact of the ambulance service, as well as decreased revenues from the planning department.

"That's one of the issues that we really see clearly and that we discussed in the budget committee process this past year," councilor Cate Hartzell said. And so, as the building / construction industry goes into some kind of a slump nationwide and other factors come into play, that part of the department is going to rise and fall in its budget depending on what's happening out on the ground.

"When I first started on the budget committee in '95 it was a pretty healthy budget &

pretty healthy balances and carryovers. To the degree that Mayor (Alan) DeBoer at that time, with some other citizens, were looking at how do they reduce those incoming balances. So they worked on changing some policies so that our carryover was actually less because they believed that we were taxing too high and keeping too much of it. And the need for those balances, in most cases I think, existed. Look at them now and project them out. We have problems. We're not going to be able to live the same way in 10 years that we did 10 years ago, or even are now. That's big."

Mayor John Morrison expressed his worry over the emergency services dilemma.

"It's expensive but people want it," Morrison said. We're really stuck on that, people want 24-hour service and they want good service. And medical care is getting more and more expensive. The ultimate answer may be beyond our borders. It may not be something that we can do here. Frankly, I just don't know how that's going to shake out. We're going to struggle through. Clearly the budget, it's a problem. It costs us a lot. We'll continue to struggle on that one."

is the Content Editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x223 or