The much anticipated first meeting of the Ashland Budget Committee (ABC) happened Thursday before a standing-room-only crowd that packed the council chamber. Outside a crowd of young people pushed for signatures to enforce a staff member being hired to implement the Climate Action and Energy Policy developed by citizens.
Inside citizens gathered with laptops and paper copies of the budget, scribbling notes.
This meeting was the first of three and, prior to it, the seven members of the Citizens Budget Committee expressed concerns about their influence, or lack of it, with the council (whose seven members make up the other half of the ABC), and about transparency.
“I do not believe the process was transparent," former committee member Bill Gates told the committee. "We continue to see manpower increases (in the budget). We all have needs but you can’t keep asking the same 20,000 people to pay for it.”
Ashland resident Meredith Overstreet said the city is potentially over-staffed and over-paid. “Personnel services increased 40 percent. Why such increases in police, fire and parks? Why such increases in capital? Public Works also has big increases in personnel. I question using utilities as a continued stream of revenue for every project the city wants.”
The council recently considered electric utility fee increases but postponed any final decisions until after the budget committee met.
Acting Finance Director Bev Adams told the ABC the budget was kept as small as possible while not cutting core services. “We wanted to preserve all core services," she said. "That was the number-one priority. No new positions in general were added unless it was brought to the council.”
Assistant chair Garrett Furuichi, along with committee member Shaun Moran, asked for details of pay and overtime for city employees. Adams said she has never been asked for that “level of detail” by any governing body in the past.
Furuichi asked, despite the resistance. “If the details exist, why not provide it?”
Adams responded, “It’s in there. You can ask for it if you want to but I think it’s highly inappropriate.”
Fuiruichi, citing state law that such details are public record and saying its worthy of review, proceeded to make a motion it be provided, and passed out copies of the law to fellow budget committee members and citizens in the chamber.
Moran seconded the motion. “I feel overtime of each division should be known. It’s in the salary and wages line. It’s 30 percent of the budget. It’s completely fair game.” Sal Amery agreed. “Why are we concerned about sharing it?”
Councilor Dennis Slattery supported the statement that the records are important and public. “As management people, which you have up here, we want to track overtime which is a huge expense.” He also spoke to transparency. “I don’t want to say we won’t open the books to citizens.”
Councilor Mike Morris dissented. “I don’t support this, we don’t need to know what salaries are. I don’t think we need this to approve a budget.”
Furuichi told Adams he was not asking for names associated with salaries, but did want some idea of pay structure, benefits and overtime. “We don’t need names. What if we assumed salaries at the fifth pay step and saw that detail?”
Adams continued to state she did not feel it is appropriate.
The city of Ashland employee salary schedule is already public. The fifth step of pay, according to documents from the City Recorder’s Office, for non-union staffers at the low end, is $49,235. The highest paid staff range between $121,336 and $150,435. The union schedule was not included in the packet requested from the city by The Tidings. Overtime was also not included.
The average weekly wage in Jackson County in 2015 was $793 ($41,236 per year).
Adams and Interim Administrator John Karns also cited rising health care costs as a key expense. Employees agreed to pay 5 percent of their healthcare costs in this two-year budget as well as raise their deductible. “That’s good. We appreciate them looking at this seriously,” said Furuichi.
Nationally, the average single employee, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, pays 18 percent of their healthcare costs and 28 percent for family coverage.
Public Employee Retirement System costs have also increased by roughly $2.2 million for the two-year period, according to Adams. It may continue to rise as employees close to retirement are leaving early to preserve their benefits at current standards. “It would not be an exaggeration that there is a lot of angst among retirement age employees and many are leaving before the state changes the rules,” said Adams.
In the end, staff was not yet directed to provide the information Furuichi requested. The vote was deferred to the next meeting where the motion is expected to re-emerge. “I will bring it up again," he said. "It’s very contentious as you saw, but I believe it’s the right thing. If it doesn’t pass I did my diligence.”
The Budget Committee meets again at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Ashland City Council Chambers, 1175 East Main St.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.