Article by John Darling

Tidings 6/9/2020

Saying that Ashland is on the brink of collapse as a tourist magnet, ACES, a local financial watchdog group, is badgering the City Council and mayor to do some radical belt-tightening in response to the pandemic impact — and to pitch in to save the teetering downtown business community.

ACES — or Ashland Citizens for Economic Stability — in its latest emailed “alert” to 1,000 followers, called on the city to fix a $6.6 million revenue shortfall and find money to safety-net small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

ACES is composed of former Citizen Budget Committee members Garrett Furuichi, Shaun Moran and David Runkel, and “concerned citizens” Susan and Ken Wilson. ACES is a state-registered PAC that worked against the May ballot measure to rebuild city hall. The measure was voted down.

The May 29 ACES “alert” called for the city to recoup big drops in the lodging and meals taxes by cutting all city salaries by 15%, saving $270,000 a month. For those earning over $125,000 a year, the cut would be 25%.

It suggested layoffs of “nonessential workers,” a freeze on hiring and incentive pay, as well as selling off “nonessential” city land. It called for cuts in repairs, supplies and such — and said the Budget Committee should be called into session now to oversee the downscaling.

Mayor John Stromberg said the city will start a series of meetings on its financial condition June 15 as it gets ready for spring budget season — and it will integrate many suggestions from the group into the discussion.

Susan Wilson, in an interview, said city officials must realize that tourists love the “gestalt of Ashland,” meaning “the totality and experience of this charming town, with the wonderful lodging, restaurants and shops being as important as the plays so the fact is that our business community, not just Shakespeare, is key to the survival of the town.”

The city has to forge a New Deal-type rescue of small business, because “your expenses continue, but there’s no income.”

Shaun Moran said the city could make short-term loans, and give 3- to 6-month breaks on utilities and rent.

ACES members complained that their regular alerts have been ignored by the council, Mayor Stromberg and City Administrator Adam Hanks, but have been responded to by Councilor Julie Akins. In an email to the Tidings, Akins said, “The city’s financial crisis is quite real … food and beverage receipts are way down. The same for tourism occupancy taxes. There is virtually no choice but to make cuts to staffing and expenses in general.

“At the same time the city must help its businesses stay afloat in order to keep our tourism alive, to encourage our businesses to survive and to avoid mass layoffs. Options include seeking and applying for grants to pass through from state and federal agencies. These are tough times, and vision is required. … The city has been too slow to act. I also believe it makes sense to convene the entire Budget Committee.”

Stromberg, Hanks and Councilor Dennis Slattery on Friday issued a joint written response on the ACES drive, with Stromberg saying city leaders have been working hard under an emergency declaration, working from home and reorganizing city government — along with easing payment requirements for taxes and utilities. They’re busy finding new money for special needs, he said, including using Community Development Block Grant capital for the homeless.

Hanks said many ACES “asks” are already being worked on, but “in no case will the city be spending money we don’t have in hand.”

The city will examine many levels of cuts, he added, while keeping public safety secure. The city has met with the other cities in the region to study COVID-driven cuts — and “made some immediate cost-cutting decisions.”

Hanks said they’re teaming with other towns and Oregon’s U.S. senators to help pass the HEROES Act, another stimulus that passed the House but is stuck in the Senate.

“This bill has a decent probability to result in direct allocation of federal funds,” Hanks said, “specifically designed and allowed to be used to backfill revenue shortfalls at the local government level.

“This is a key reason that ‘the plan’ won’t contain cuts that match the entire current estimated shortfall and why knee-jerk reactions could be more detrimental than deliberate, targeted and sustainable cost containment.”

Wilson, founder of the group five years ago, said Ashland has made small steps in responding to the economic crash and must follow the realistic budget-cutting examples of Ashland School District, Southern Oregon University, Ashland Community Hospital and the state government.

Group Demands City Tighten its Belt to Save the Town

Group Demands City Tighten its Belt to Save the Town