Taxes on property and a hike in utility rates may end up funding police officers while and marijuana tax revenues go to support affordable housing efforts after the Ashland City Council tweaked the budget for the upcoming biennial period starting July 1. To finalize the decision, though, will take approval at a special meeting the day before the budget takes effect.

The council is due to vote on the final budget at a public meeting starting at 3 p.m. Friday, June 30, in the City Council Chambers at 1175 East Main St. The council could vote to raise property tax rates by as much as 9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, which would take it to the legal cap.

At Tuesday's regular business meeting, Mayor John Stromberg was called upon to cast a tie-breaking vote leading to the public meeting, so property taxes could be raised to make ends meet so the council can fill its commitment to fund five new police officers. Besides the tax, utility rates would also be raised to meet the estimated $550,000 annual cost for the five officers. Utilities would pay for approximately three officers, property taxes two officers.

Council feelings were mixed about what might be more fair and broad based, taxing home owners or putting the total burden on utility rates.

“I think we need to keep (property) taxes where they’re at,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse. “I think given where the economy is, it would not be supported by the public.” Lemhouse went on to say they just completed the two-year budget with the Citizens Budget Committee where property tax increases were proposed and rejected. “I feel if we raised taxes now it would go against the spirit of the budget committee.”

But Councilor Traci Darrow, who proposed the property tax increase during the budget meeting, suggested a failure to increase property taxes for home owners and landlords while raising utility rates would disproportionately affect people with less income. “I think it’s a fair way to start funding police rather than putting all the pressure on utility rates and other fees," Darrow said. "This spreads it out more through the community.”

The council has a thorny issue as it voted to approve the hiring of five new police officers and directed Police Chief Tighe O’Meara to begin the recruitment process. The council agreed with the chief that the city is currently understaffed, but has no way to pay for additional officers without adding revenue.

It’s something Councilor Mike Morris addressed by raising the possibility of using state marijuana tax dollars, which are to be used for policing under state governing laws. However, it’s unclear how much money that would be. It won’t be known until the end of September. “I think the funding of the five officers could start here (with property taxes), but I think the state marijuana tax could be used," Morris said. "I’d like to see what that amount is before raising property taxes.”

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said she understood the points being made, but could not entirely agree. “I think property owners already have a heavy burden in the State of Oregon,” she continued. “I think it spreads it more evenly on utilities rather than property tax."

Currently, the property tax rate is $4.1972 per $1,000 of assessed value, as of the 2013-15 and 2015-2017 budgets. An increase to $4.2865 would amount to a 2 percent increase.

Of the property taxes Ashland residents pay, 29 percent goes to the city of Ashland, 14 percent goes to Jackson County and 49 percent goes to education which funds the Ashland public schools and Jackson County Educational Services District. Part of the property tax money also goes to pay off a 2005 general obligation bond and a fire station No. 2 bond passed in 2011 of roughly $219,000.

According to cities.Org, which tracks property taxes, Oregon falls in the middle of the pack for tax rates, ranking 28th in the nation. Ashland is also roughly in the middle of the state on property tax rates, with Portland area taxes being higher and Klamath Falls, for example, being lower.

Irrespective of whether or not to raise property taxes, the council passed the rest of the budget as proposed by the Citizens Budget Committee, including two new positions: a permit ombudsperson and a climate and energy analyst. The ombudsperson is budgeted at $85,000 and the climate and energy analyst (as opposed to director), is at roughly $110,000. The funding was created by pulling from Community Development increases, economic grant reallocation and a general fund shifting. The climate position is paid for through cuts to the City Recorder’s office.

In addition the budget includes an allocation of marijuana dispensary taxes to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund of up to $100,000 annually. That number is also not yet known but should be by September.

“Even though the media hasn’t really covered it, I think a big victory in this budget is the funding of the Housing Trust Fund. This has been repeatedly identified as an important issue in the city of Ashland,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse in praise of passing the two-year year budget which goes into effect on July 1.

—Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.