© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Measure 15-214: Here’s what’s in Ashland’s measure giving special tax money to the parks department

A wide white wooden sign in a landscaping arrangement or bushes and plants. Carved into the sign and filled with dark green are the words "Lithia park"
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
The entrance to Lithia Park in Ashland, opened in 1916

Ashland voters are deciding on a change to their special tax on all prepared foods in the city. The May 16 ballot measure has drawn lots of heated debate from both sides.

What would the ballot measure do?

The ballot measure, 15-214, would allocate all of the city’s Food and Beverage Tax to the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. The measure wouldn’t increase funding overall, just change where it comes from and how it can be spent.

Altogether the tax collects around $2-3 million annually. Currently a quarter of the tax is intended to go to the parks department. But that money is reserved for capital projects, including park land acquisition and major building construction or repair.

The additional 73% (a small percentage is used for administration of the tax) of the tax that would go to the parks department could be used for anything, including day-to-day operations like park maintenance. That money was intended to be used for major street repair projects. But recently, the city decided to change that.

Ashland’s 2021-23 city budget moved street funding from the Food and Beverage Tax instead to franchise fees which are charged to utilities that use city property, like Spectrum internet or the city’s own electric department.

The city said the change was to ensure there would be a dedicated and stable funding stream for street projects, instead of relying on the Food and Beverage Tax. So now, those Food and Beverage funds are up for discussion.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Rick Landt said because of the city’s previous change, that means all of the money in the Food and Beverage Tax is currently given to the parks department, but is solely dedicated for capital projects. Landt said the commission wants to open up that funding for other uses, like park maintenance.

The city said the decreased revenue it saw from the Food and Beverage Tax at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic meant the tax was unreliable. According to the most recent budget, the tax revenue dropped around 36% in the first year of the pandemic.

The ballot measure would not increase funding for the parks department. Both Landt and Mayor Tonya Graham have said any increase in funding the department gets from the Food and Beverage Tax would be offset by a decrease from the city’s general fund. The majority of the parks department’s funding comes from the general fund, which is approved by the city council and funded primarily through property taxes.

Would the Food and Beverage Tax revenue be used to build a new pool?

The measure says that parks must continue to use at least 25% of the tax on capital projects, but the rest of money could be used for anything, including day-to-day operations such as parks maintenance; it could also be used for capital projects as well.

Opponents of the measure argue that the ability of the parks department to use all of the money for capital projects means they’ll spend it irresponsibly and focus on expanding parks rather than maintaining the ones that already exist.

On social media, opponents have specifically highlighted the parks department’s efforts to build a new pool, which is estimated to cost around $10 million.

David Runkel is a member of the citizen’s budget committee and an opponent of the measure. He said giving the parks department its own dedicated source of revenue could open up the door for spending on major capital projects without oversight from the city council.

“There’s no reason to do that, unless you have an ulterior motive,” said Runkel. “Having a dedicated source of money would allow the parks department to go out and [issue] bonds to pay for whatever project they want to fund.”

However, Commissioner Landt said the plan has always been to use the funding for park maintenance, and that the flexibility put in the measure by the city council only created more confusion.

“It’s not the intention of myself. It’s not the intention of the parks commission, and I don’t believe it’s the intention of the city council,” said Landt. “But, it has been problematic.”

Landt said replacing the pool is a priority for the parks commission because it’s nearing its expected 50-year lifespan and needs to be replaced.

Landt said the department is implementing a temporary fix for the pool in the next year or so, but it only gives them an extra five years. Eventually the pool will need to be replaced.

But, he said if Measure 15-214 passed, the money will be used for operating expenses, not a pool.

Why is the tax being extended through 2040?

Landt said the parks department would still rely on general fund allocations from the city council for the majority of its budget. Landt said the goal of redirecting the Food and Beverage Tax would be to create a reliable source of funding for the department.

He said the intention of the parks department is not to spend all of this tax revenue money on a new pool. The 25% of funding that will still be reserved for capital projects would be enough to fund the pool replacement, Landt said, as long as the tax is extended through 2040.

“Which is the reason we wanted to extend the sunset date,” Landt said. “So there’d be sufficient years for a revenue bond for a new pool.”

Right now, the tax is set to expire at the end of 2030.

No matter if the ballot measure passes or not, at least 25% of the tax will still be reserved for parks capital projects. That means if the parks department wants to continue to use that reserved money to issue bonds, they need a timeline on the tax long enough to assure borrowers the money will be paid back.

What’s the alternative proposed by opponents to the measure?

If the measure fails, it’s unclear what would happen to money in the Food and Beverage Tax. Incidentally, that money is currently allocated solely to parks, for capital projects, a fact that both sides want to change. But Commissioner Landt said the city manager hasn’t said if that might change after the results of the ballot measure come out.

The city did not respond to questions about the future of the Food and Beverage Tax before this story was published.

David Runkel expects another ballot measure would be proposed to allocate the money from the Food and Beverage Tax to the city’s general fund, to be used as the city council wishes.

“It's the council's responsibility to decide how much to fund each department,” he said. “And I have faith in the council to make the decision on that.”

But Ashland residents voted down such a measure last November. It would have allocated the remaining 73% of the Food and Beverage Tax to the general fund. Commissioner Landt said residents should put that election behind them.

“That was defeated by a 60-40 vote, and yet that’s still being used as one of the arguments as an alternative, and it’s just a non-starter,” said Landt.

How can I participate?

Most voters should have received their ballots in the mail by now; residents of Ashland can vote on this ballot measure.

Ballots should be postmarked by the USPS or returned to an official dropbox by 8 P.M. on election day, May 16.

A list of drop-boxes can be found on Jackson County’s website. The only official drop-box in Ashland is located at the back of the Ashland Public Library near the book drop.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.