Guest Opinion: City can find money for operations center

    Two recent pieces of news are very troubling to me and should be to all Ashland taxpayers. The first that the City Council may seek voter approval of a $1 million general obligation bond to construct a new emergency operations center, and the second that the council was considering spending $80,000 to have an architect evaluate each of three options for replacing City Hall after an ad hoc committee charged with studying the issue couldn't reach a unanimous recommendation.

    As regards the emergency operations center (EOC): I wholeheartedly agree with Police Chief Tighe O'Meara that the city needs a new EOC. But rather than a voter-approved general obligation (property tax-funded) bond to pay for it, the council should engage in some serious prioritization and fund that EOC with existing budgetary resources.

    Given the city's credit-worthiness, it can easily borrow $1 million, using the city's full faith and credit. The debt service on that borrowing would be about $75,000 a year or less. The tax rate for a general obligation bond to pay that debt service would be about 3 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation; hardly noticeable to most taxpayers. But that's beside the point. The city will likely have to seek a much larger general obligation bond at some point for City Hall replacement (probably 25 to 30 cents per $1,000) and the council has already begun raising property taxes and imposing utility billing surcharges to pay for new police officers (which I agree are necessary). At what point does the council stop imposing new taxes and fees on its citizens and start imposing budgetary discipline on itself?

    The council could easily find $75,000 a year in the existing city budget if it was truly a priority. For example, the city could reduce one of its grant programs by $75,000 a year. I acknowledge that many people (especially the recipients of the grants) consider them to be extremely important. But more important than a new EOC?

    Or, the city could cease the practice of providing fully paid health insurance for city councilors. The city budgets more than $105,000 annually for health benefits for the council. There is nothing in the city charter or the city code that requires this. It's just an ongoing practice. But what's a higher priority? Health insurance for the council or a new EOC that benefits all of the citizens of Ashland?

    Granted, councilors are not otherwise compensated for the many hours they put in. But one's tenure on the council should be motivated by an altruistic desire to serve, not by the prospect of monetary reward (and altruism is, I believe, the motivation of all of the current councilors).

    There are many other places the money could come from if, again, the council is willing to prioritize. Alternatively, the council could cut both of these items in order to fund a new EOC and more police officers, then ask voters to approve a serial levy to fund what's been cut. If an EOC is truly a priority, why take the risk that voters will reject a new property tax for it?

    As for the $80,000 for an architectural study of three City Hall options, don't waste the money. A solid majority of the ad hoc City Hall Committee favored rebuilding City Hall in its current location. The East Main location makes far more sense but that option will be beaten down if the city pursues it by those who believe City Hall must remain in its current location now and forever, and Briscoe School is far, far more valuable to this community as low-income and workforce housing than as a City Hall.

    The city should start working now on the rebuild-in-place option, perhaps going up to three or four stories, and aim for asking the voters for a bond in three years, when the bonds for Fire Station 1 come off the tax rolls, thus mitigating the impact of a City Hall bond.

    This kind of decisive prioritizing is what's needed now; not more studying or committees or general dithering. Other communities have done it. Ashland can do it, too.

    — Dave Kanner was Ashland city administrator from 2012 through 2016.

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