The City Council is off to an early start on the budget process by giving police Chief Tighe O'Meara a preliminary nod to begin hiring five new officers. The details — such as how to pay the $500,000 cost — remain to be determined, but the move appears to be a prudent one.

O'Meara has good reason for requesting an early signal from the council, because the process of recruiting and training new police officers is lengthy, dragging on for months. With an indication of eventual approval, the chief can start the process of background checks on new hires with a reasonable expectation that the payroll increase will be there when they come on board.

The council has good reasons for giving O'Meara the go-ahead. As the chief explained in a report to the city, Ashland's police force has remained static at approximately 28 officers for the past 20 years. Ashland's population in 1997 was a little more than 18,000. It now stands at nearly 21,000. At the same time, Oregon Shakespeare Festival attendance has grown from 364,602 to 398,304, and Southern Oregon University enrollment also has increased.

O'Meara wants to field four officers on each shift. That's a reasonable goal.

Council members agreed in principle that more officers are needed. A surcharge on power bills is a possible revenue source, but no final decision has been made.

Public safety is a primary responsibility of the city, and adequate police staffing is key to fulfilling it.