Where have all the taxes gone?

A Call for New Budget Committee Members to Help Ashland Parce its Funds

rain extinguishes
the fiery leaves of autumn—
smold’ring fun’ral pyre

An overnight rainstorm.  Run-off gushes down the sidewalk and street, transporting fallen leaves as it carves away at the pavement.  Because of the hill’s slope, most of those leaves end up in front of my driveway.

I pull my garbage can to the curb, negotiating wheels over broken cement that been worn away a full two inches lower than street level. If I don’t leave my cans in this curbside dent, the garbage man refuses to pick them up.

I dash indoors.  As I do I hear a street sweeper chugging up the block.  “Oh, no!” I think, and run outside—only to discover it has passed by without sweeping away any of the most recent deposit of dead leaves.  Indignant, I dial Ashland Public Works, explaining the situation.  I’ve paid my property taxes.  I’ve paid all those extra add-on fees on my utility bill.  I feel my block deserves to be swept.

Public Works sends out a charming employee, who explains that Ashland, unlike many other cities, doesn’t have monthly street sweeping services.  Our two street sweepers make regular passes over main arteries, but residential side streets receive two cleanings per year.  Woe be to the block filled with parked cars the unpredictable moment the sweeper passes.  Our recently-purchased, fuel-efficient sweeper has a poor turning radius, and can’t negotiate near the curb unless cars are parked sufficient distance from one another.  But the city can’t post ‘no parking’ warning signs to clear blocks ahead of time—as it doesn’t know exact dates when the sweepers will pass.

In the end, the gentleman heroically recalls the street sweeper to remove the leaves from my block.  As we wait and watch, I point to the street’s water damage, and suggest potential storm drain blockage.  I am informed (partly inaccurately) that my street has no storm drains; that Ashland residents have chosen to leave streets unpaved—facts that leave me wondering just where my tax dollars are going, especially as I seem to remember paying fees on my utility bill for these services.

Attuned to my concerns, the gentleman encourages me to join Ashland’s citizen budgetary committee— even leaving a contact number on my voicemail.  Curious, I make the call.  With that I begin my odyssey investigating the City of Ashland’s finances and services. Phone call after phone call to city employees I am offered a litany of excuses as to why the city does not have enough money to do x…

So where does our tax money go?  

No question:  Ashland is a delightful place to live—replete with quality-of-life enriching amenities like parks and arts programs.  In part this can be attributed to high property values, and the resultant taxes.

However, most property tax monies don’t go directly to accounts managed by the city council.  Indicated on each tax bill are the funds apportioned off to pay for local schools and libraries, as well as County expenses, and paying off debt (from past municipal bonds.)  Only roughly a fourth of our property tax dollars are allocated to city operational expenses.  This amount is insufficient to cover the salaries of the police, firefighters, and city employees who run our parks, pave our streets, clean our wastewater, and manage other affairs (or, as in my case, to explain on the phone why there isn’t money to provide services that other cities provide their citizens.)

To make up the difference Ashland generates some additional monies from hospitality taxes, gas taxes, building and business permits, speeding and parking tickets.  Yet, when totaled, all this income represents less than a third of the city’s operating budget.  The other two/thirds of Ashland’s income is derived from fees and taxes attached to residents’ utility bills.

In some ways this system makes sense.  Utility bill fees are a way to more fairly spread out the city’s operational costs over a wider group of households than just property owners.  Furthermore, because the city operates its own electricity company, it is in a position to charge less for actual electricity usage than for-profit companies; by adding on fees and taxes, it make a profit, which can then be redirected to other operational costs.  Additional fees and taxes are added to other portions of the bill linked to water, sewer, street user, and storm drain usage.

However, this system has ratepayers confused and annoyed.  Often times the fees and taxes posted on the bill appear to bear no relationship to actual utility use.  With fees that can often run more than twice as high as usage charges, this is a sore point with every resident of Ashland to whom I spoke—especially residents who are making an effort to conserve.  While in part they do so as an effort to be good citizens, they are also trying to bring down the cost of their bills.  Yet, instead, residents see their energy bills rising.

Shouldn’t ecologically-minded citizens be rewarded, not punished, for their sound energy practices?  Here’s the rub: apparently going green has its own set of financial liabilities.  As Ashland has linked its primary source of revenue to its citizens’ energy usage, when resident conserve, the city’s income goes down.  So the city council increases fees to utility bills to compensate!

So how should Ashland proceed from here?  How do we fund some of the services we are not now receiving?   Should we restructure how monies are collected to pay for services?  Should we trim services?  Should we add on more fees to enhance the services not yet provided?  Or just re-word the utility bill so added fees are more clearly separated from usage charges?

The conversation begins here.

First of all, the city council needs some of its citizens to step up and help figure out how to resolve these issues.  There are two open positions for the 2015-17 budget committee (a mix of councilmembers and private citizens.)  Ashland residents who are interested in applying for these positions are encouraged to log on to the city website.

As for the rest of us—several city council members are open to dialoguing on the topic.  Rogue Valley Community Press will enable a blog for readers to comment, disagree, voice frustrations, and hopefully offer some helpful suggestions.

As a final note: for activists deeply concerned with the ills of our planet, perhaps this is a perfect opportunity for us to adhere to the adage: think globally, act locally.