A small army of red T-shirted Ashland residents crowded the Ashland City Council Chambers on Tuesday asked city leaders to put a resolution on the November ballot advising the 2017 legislature to create a clear public process addressing healthcare.

The group, Healthcare for All Oregon, has chapters throughout the state. They are asking city leaders around the state to do the same thing. Legislators have promised a study to look into best solutions for Oregonians, many of whom are under-insured or paying increasingly higher insurance premiums for coverage.

“We want legislators to see that voters are watching," Dr. Sandy Coyner told the council, "and that they (legislators) take action on their own study.” 

The group applauded efforts made through the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as “Obamacare,” but said it does not go far enough in stopping insurance companies from raising rates to consumers and putting pressure on doctors to see a greater number of patients and spend less time per person in their offices.

“The Affordable Care Act has been good in creating dialogue and care," Dr. Paul Fisher testified, "but we still don’t have universal care.” He said insurance companies are not properly governed, and “each insurance company has a complex and irrational system which costs more money and is inefficient.”

Healthcare for All Oregon representatives told the council, as they were flanked by more than a dozen supporters, that they want voters to be able to pass this resolution as a way of sending a clear message to Salem while educating themselves about universal health care.

The majority of councilors supported the resolution but stopped short of passing it through for voters to consider in November. Councilor Stefani Seffinger expressed concern that mental health care was not mentioned in the resolution and also wanted to make sure the resolution was properly worded for clarity. Councilor Pam Marsh agreed with that assessment, as did Councilor Rich Rosenthal. Mayor John Stromberg was not present; he is in Washington, D.C., for a White House Roundtable to discuss wildfire mitigation and firefighter safety.

Councilors postponed a vote and agreed to take the matter up at their regular June 7 meeting. The City Recorder has until July to get the resolution on the ballot.

Next councilors took up the issue of raising various utility rates, including those funding water, storm drains, wastewater and transportation. Overall, the increases represent an 8 percent hike in revenue, but Public Works Director Mike Faught reiterated that, for the average household, the increase will be closer to around 5 percent and adds up to around $5 per month hike on utilities for most residents.

Several councilors expressed their difficulty with raising rates anytime, but agreed it needs to be done.

“We need to cover costs of doing the minimal needed,” said Councilor Marsh. Councilor Mike Morris voted in favor, agreeing that roads in particular need basic maintenance, such as fixing pot-holes and cracks. “Anyone who drives around Ashland can see we’re not keeping up.”

During the meeting an exemption in transportation taxes adopted in 1999 caught the eye of Councilors Marsh and Steffinger. “Why are churches exempt?” asked Marsh, who went on to say, “It seems like a special benefit. Not nonprofits, just churches?” Her sentiment was echoed by Seffinger, who questioned if this was appropriate and fair. Ashland city staff was directed to look into how this exemption came about and bring it back to the council for consideration.

Marsh and Seffinger indicated their concern of granting anyone special exemptions from city taxes, but particularly religious groups, as such action may constitute a failure of separation of church and state. Councilors Rosenthal and Carol Voisin urged the council to find out why the exemption exists before making any decisions about it.

And, after eight years in the making, amid a celebratory mood the council approved adoption of the 2016 Ashland Forest Plan, which includes controlled burns and limited helicopter logging. The plan, at first controversial, included, “thousands of hours” of research, discussion and collaboration, according to Councilor Seffinger, who once sat on the Fire Commission. 

The Ashland Forest Plan has been much lauded as a model for other communities to consider as control burns are more likely to prevent wildfires, improve natural canopies and assist in restoring rivers and streams, as well as wildlife, according to the authors of the plan which includes firefighters, environmentalists and conservation and forest researchers and scientists.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.