The city of Ashland announced on Friday afternoon that the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year will be $14 million less than this year's budget and will require city staff cuts.

The city of Ashland announced on Friday afternoon that the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year will be $14 million less than this year's budget and will require city staff cuts.

The proposed $81 million budget would go into effect July 1, although it must first be reviewed over the next few months by the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee, which is made up of residents, the Ashland City Council and Mayor John Stromberg.

City Administrator Martha Bennett, Finance Director Lee Tuneberg and their team of city staff prepared a budget that includes no property tax increase. But with no property tax increase, city staff will be cut.

"The proposed budget is balanced without proposing increased property taxes," said Bennett. "To achieve that, the City needs to lay off two firefighters, the CERT coordinator, two utility workers and a park technician. We also have reduced a police records clerk to half time, reduced seasonal positions in Parks & Recreation and shifted staff in Parks & Recreation to cover certain jobs."

The CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team, program is a popular program in which residents are taught how to take care of themselves and their neighbors during emergencies such as natural disasters.

The Ashland Fire & Rescue-based program has a full-time coordinator, Lucy Edwards, and an assistant funded by a grant. Since Edwards' position is funded by the city, that position is being cut, Bennett said.

Bennett said the CERT program can continue without a full-time coordinator, but at a less robust level.

The reduction in firefighters means that all three shifts at Ashland Fire & Rescue will be operating one person short, she said.

The city already made staff cuts in December 2008, including eliminating a vacant firefighter position, Bennett said.

Those December 2008 cuts, combined with the proposed cuts for the coming fiscal year, total 14.35 positions, according to city officials.

With reduced firefighter staffing during shifts, a captain who would normally manage firefighters in the event of a big emergency would have to join them, Bennett said.

"If we have a complex incident, that's where the concern is. On a day-to-day basis, it will probably not affect the average citizen," she said.

Although the proposed budget does not include a property tax increase, Bennett will urge Budget Committee members to raise city property taxes to their legal ceiling in order to avoid future budget problems.

"I think the Budget Committee will be really torn," she said. "But to protect the city in the long run, we need to build those reserves."

Budget Committee members will be concerned about the impact on residents who are struggling in the economic recession and whether Ashland households can afford a tax increase, Bennett predicted.

The city has 20.68 cents per $1,000 in property value left before it hits that ceiling. If property taxes were raised to their highest level, the owner of a home with an assessed value of $250,000 would pay an additional $51.70 per year in property taxes.

Bennett asked the Budget Committee during last spring's budget process to raise city property taxes to their legal ceiling in order to build up reserves. The Budget Committee instead settled for a smaller tax increase, which still required staff cuts, including the loss of the city's fire inspector.

City managers will receive no cost of living raises, and city officials are working with the employees represented by unions to get them to take no cost of living raises, Bennett said.

City employees are still paying only 5 percent of the cost of their health insurance, whether they have individual or family insurance, according to Bennett.

The percentage they pay is still far below what employees in private industry usually pay. Contributions of about 25 percent toward health insurance — assuming an employer even offers insurance — are relatively common. Fewer businesses, especially small ones in Ashland, offer family health insurance.

Bennett said the city government can't impose health insurance contribution increases on employees, but instead must bargain with unions.

In addition to staff cuts, the proposed budget includes cuts in materials and services.

Bennett said city officials worked to prepare a budget that prioritized emergency response and the health and welfare of citizens. Non-emergency response departments faced 5 percent reductions, while departments that deal with emergencies faced 3 percent reductions.

The Proposed Budget now goes to the Budget Committee, which will review the proposal, make changes and recommend a budget for the coming fiscal year.

The meeting calendar for the Budget Committee and the proposed budget is available on the City's Web site at www.ashland.or.us.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.