The Ashland City Council at the Tuesday City Council meeting gave unofficial approval for the police department to begin a process of hiring five additional police officers to bring it more in line with staffing standards after 20 years with little or no increase, but the council’s actions immediately drew fire from the chairman of the Citizens Budget Committee as over-reaching and possibly outside of state law.
In a staff report with a summary prepared by Mayor John Stromberg, unusual in that such reports are usually prepared by city staff, Stromberg wrote that "In a recent meeting with City staff concerning maintaining public order during our summer visitor season it became very clear to me that our current staffing is inadequate to the role we need our Police Department to play."
Supporting materials submitted by Police Chief Tighe O’Meara ask that the city add a school resource officer and four additional uniformed officers which would add a officer to every shift. The price tag would be roughly $500,000 and the chief requested the council’s nod of approval so he could begin a background check process for potential candidates, as the hiring process takes many months to complete.
O’Meara said the city of Ashland is facing a dangerous situation without enough officers. “We can have three officers on duty," he said. "To can be called away and we’re left with one officer to patrol the entire city. This happens once a week, sometimes more.”
In his report, O'Meara says "The staffing of the Ashland Police Department has remained fairly consistent over the last 20 years at approximately 28 officers. This, despite the fact that the city population, the tourist population and the university population have all increased significantly."
Receptive councilors expressed a desire to hire the officers, albeit with some caution. “I have questions about the budget and how we’re going to pay for it," said Councilor Dennis Slattery, who indicated the council might be moving too fast. "I support it, but I think we should direct staff to look at a resolution on budgeting it.”
In the police chief’s proposal was an option of a 3.5 percent utility surcharge to cover the costs of the additional staffing. The council authorized city staff to bring back a resolution to consider a surcharge on electric rates. Councilor Rich Rosenthal suggested it not be only for police but fire as well. “It’s not good when you pit two agencies against each other competing for funding,” he said.
The council decided to hear more at their next meeting on April 18 with an agreement in principle that hiring more police officers would be a good idea and that a surcharge would be the most likely possibility.
“I feel some urgency about this because as the budget is coming up we’ll need to figure this out along with other priorities,” said Mayor Stromberg.
However, the next morning, Wendnesday, Dave Runkel, chairman of the Citizen Budget Committee, sent out an e-mail challenging the process. “Last night’s City Council approval of the hiring of five new city police officers at a cost of more than $500,000 appears to have been done in violation of Oregon local budgeting law,” he wrote. “Under Oregon law, taxes and expenditures are required to be approved by the Citizens Budget Committee, a body that includes seven appointed citizens as well as the mayor and six Council members.”
City councilors did not specifically pass the budgeting for the police officers but asked city staff to prepare a resolution which would include the surcharge.
However the request, according to Runkel, is over the line.
“Meanwhile the Council has begun to make budget decisions that will cost Ashland residents and property owners without the input of the citizen members," according to Runkel. "While no funding plan was approved last night, it was proposed that the hiring costs be partially paid for by a $3.50 a month utility surcharge. These actions are contrary to the spirit of Oregon law, if not in fact, outright violations.”
In e-mails obtained by The Tidings, Chairman Runkel questions the process of city councilors making budget decisions outside of the Citizens Budget Committee and the additional discussions of “department add-ins” which are requests from various city departments for funding. He is addressing his concerns to other Citizens Committee members and also the interim city administrator in the e-mails.
“Appears that the normal city budget process of the last six years is out the window this year," Runkel wrote in an email. "Are these council discussions beginning tonight in keeping with state law?... It would appear that the Mayor and Councilors are getting together in their role as Budget Committee members.”
Runkel is referring to the Study Session of Monday, April 3, where councilors were presented with department add-ins and a discussion occurred about how the budgeting process would work. In addition, new meetings for April 19 and 20 were scheduled so councilors could continue to discuss the proposed add-ins.
In the e-mail chain city Administrator John Karns explains the process, writing, “… the meetings on April 19 and 20 are special Council meetings for developing policy decisions which will prioritize Council and Department add-ins. Also, we are confident that three budget meetings will suffice so long as the Departments and Committee stays on task. The Department presentations will be concise and provide the appropriate information to the Budget Committee.”
Karns further states that the Citizens Committee will be given access to the information as the budget process continues. “In May, the Budget Committee will see the add-ins that have been moved into the budget (if any) based on the policy decisions made by Council. This, of course, depends on funding available.”
Karns, according to the e-mails obtained, did invite the Citizens Budget Committee to observe the meetings on the 19th and 20th in preparation for the committee meeting in May. However, Runkel questions the fact there are fewer Citizens Budget Committee meetings and suggests waiting until May after the City Council has the ball rolling is not allowing enough input and decision making by the Citizen Committee.
“Unlike previous years, the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee was not convened early in the year and the presentations of the 2017-19 budget proposal has been delayed more than a month until late May,” Runkel said.
Runkel, as of now, is suggesting a training on state law as it pertains to budgeting. While he’s referenced possible violations to state law he has not demanded an immediate change or response from the city.
The Tidings spoke with City Attorney Dave Lohman who says the city is acting within the law and the spirit of the law. “The Citizens Budget Committee is supposed to meet once the budget has been prepared and make decisions at that time. The city is still in that process," Lohman said. "There is no violation of the law.”
Staff is expected to bring a resolution to the next regular business meeting on April 18.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.