The City Council is holding a special public hearing Friday afternoon to vote on overturning the Budget Committee-approved budget for the next biennium.
Although the virtual ink of the budget has yet to dry, the Ashland City Council, clearly frustrated with the Budget Committee’s financial view of the council’s spending proposals, is considering overriding the budget with a last-minute tax hike. Specifically, they are proposing to raise the property tax rate above the approved amount to the maximum allowed by the state. This meeting, and the proposal, is completely unprecedented and was hurriedly set to allow for the only opportunity the council has to overturn the approved budget and raise the property tax rate before the deadline of June 30.
The proposed budget for this biennium was $285 million, an increase of $46 million, about 30 percent over the current budget. In addition to $2 million in PERS liability, the council “preferred" proposal included seven new unfunded positions, an additional $750,000 or so.
The budget proposal, even without the seven positions, was barely sustainable, and the Budget Committee rejected increased taxes for the new positions. As a reminder, half of the Budget Committee are council-appointed citizens, and the committee is, by state law, solely responsible for setting the tax rate. This rejection of the Budget Committee decisions should not be taken lightly.
The budget process this year was extremely contentious. The Budget Committee was given a less-than-adequate budget document and requests for information from committee members were met with outright hostility from staff and some council members. Even the Budget Committee responsibilities on the city web page were quietly changed in an apparent attempt to reduce the charge of the committee from a deliberative body to merely reviewing the budget document and (ironically) setting the tax rate.
Many citizens were blindsided by their utility bills this winter, a combination of a harsh winter and a doubling of water and wastewater rates over the past few years. The council’s response to this? Raise rates even higher.
Don’t have enough revenue to pay current employees? The council’s response: Add more employees.
Can’t pay for unfunded liabilities? Tax the newly raised utilities even more.
Housing costs increasing dramatically, and the council wants to raise property taxes even higher.
Along with the five former members of the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee listed below, I urge the City Council to reject any attempt to raise the property tax rate beyond the level approved by the Budget Committee or otherwise overturn the approved budget.
— Russ Silbiger is a former member of the Ashland City Council and the Ashland Budget Committee. This opinion was also signed by Bill Heimann, Roberta Stebbins, Lynn Thompson, Keith Baldwin and William Gates.