The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee has approved adding a new assistant city administrator and a summer fire department worker to enforce rules against overgrown flammable weeds, but nixed proposals for an added police officer and a conservation manager.

The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee has approved adding a new assistant city administrator and a summer fire department worker to enforce rules against overgrown flammable weeds, but nixed proposals for an added police officer and a conservation manager.

During a Thursday night meeting, the committee also approved a part-time Ashland Municipal Court clerk and agreed to cut a vacant Electric Department director position.

An economic development position with the city will expire on its own as the person in that post wraps up an Ashland economic development plan.

The Ashland City Council will have the final say on whether to adopt the changes for the coming fiscal year, which starts on July 1.

Budget committee members said City Administrator Martha Bennett is stretched too thin, warranting an added assistant city administrator. The city once had that assistant position, but cut it several years ago.

The elimination of a vacant electric department position will help pay for the assistant city administrator. Among other duties, the new hire will supervise the electric department.

Budget committee members said Ashland Fire & Rescue should have an added summer person to make sure residents don't let their property become overgrown with flammable vegetation.

While several said they would like to have an added police officer to focus on the downtown area and schools, they said now is not the time to add that position given that many residents are hurting financially from the uncertain economy.

Budget committee members were split down the middle on whether to add a conservation manager. The tied vote meant a motion to add the post failed. The city has three conservation workers who are currently being supervised by the planning director.

"We have far more pressing needs we need to pay for than this position," City Councilor Russ Silbiger said about the conservation manager post.

Councilor Carol Voisin argued for the position, saying it could eventually save residents money. She noted that the Bonneville Power Administration, which wholesales power to the city's electric department, is going to charge communities higher rates if they don't keep a lid on electricity use.

The Budget Committee is made up of councilors, Mayor John Stromberg and residents.

There's a chance the conservation manager position could end up being adopted when the City Council considers the budget, since three councilors plus the mayor voted in favor of the post, while three councilors voted against it during the budget committee meeting.

If adopted by the City Council, the total city government budget would be $93.9 million, up from the current fiscal year budget of $89.7 million. Much of the increase is due to infrastructure projects and $1.5 million in federal funds for Ashland Watershed thinning that is passing through the city, inflating the city government budget.

Budget committee members expressed concerns about proposed utility rate increases that could eventually add $148 a year to a typical family's utility bills, but did little to address the hikes.

Budget committee members did approve a change to a water department franchise fee that could eventually dampen water bill increases by 2 percent in 2012.

The Ashland City Council already approved a 10 percent water rate hike that takes effect this month and a 6 percent sewer rate increase that takes effect in June.

Councilors will consider electric, transportation and stormwater utility fee increases this fall, as well as additional water and sewer bill increases in the spring of next year. With the budget committee action on the water department franchise fee, a possible 6 percent water bill increase in 2012 could be trimmed to a 4 percent increase.

City property tax rates will go down slightly to $4.1973 per $1,000 in assessed property value. The committee eliminated a small $0.016 property tax addition from last year to help buy fire equipment after the fire department won a sizable grant to replace aging hoses. Budget committee members want the fire department to pursue more grants.

Eliminating that small tax for fire equipment will save a typical homeowner about $3.80 in the coming fiscal year.

City property taxes will cost the owner of a home assessed at $237,410 — the median in Ashland — $996.48 in the coming fiscal year if the City Council finalizes the property tax rate approved by the budget committee.

However, that typical homeowner could pay another $29.44 in the coming fiscal year if voters on Tuesday approve up to $3 million in bonds to replace Fire Station No. 2 on Ashland Street.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.