State of the City 2012

State of the City 2012
January 3, 2012

 
Thesis: We are moving from a ‘let the City do it’ model to an ‘all hands turn to’ self-sufficiency model of community and city government.
 

Part I: What’s coming in 2012
 
Challenges and Opportunities
 
I will be giving you a sampling of upcoming issues, all part of a much larger list. First, we have the Water Master Plan. The Water Master Plan has four major issues that are really important to all of us; do we have adequate supply and is it redundant, we have to amortize and manage the maintenance of our current infrastructure so that we can avoid getting in to a financial hole, we have to develop a new rate structure that doesn’t cause our revenue to fall below our fixed-cost expenses in years where there is low water use or good conservation, and the last issue is the security of our water source.
 
The second item that we are going to be dealing with next year has to do with Urban Renewal. The Council has so far been somewhat cool on the subject, for good reason, but I believe that we are going to need to consider some possibilities - at least for the downtown area. One is that we may want to do something substantial about downtown parking. The second is that a lot of the buildings on The Plaza need to have a seismic retrofit. Chief Karns tells me that those buildings would not be in good shape if we have a substantial earthquake. The third is that we’ve been thinking for a long time about possibly revamping The Plaza, and this may tie in with some other ideas.
 
The third item that is going to come up, and it’s already on our agenda, is the Recology Rate Increase Request. I want to point out a couple of things about this. First, we have an unusual and somewhat unique relationship with Recology in that we have a legacy franchise. Normally if the City were going to have this function we would either have it within the City, in which case the manager of this function would have to prioritize their budget, or we would have this service via an RFP (Request for Proposal) process in which contractors competed to give us the best price on a menu of services. In some states you have a public utility commission whose job it is to be an independent arbitrator of what is a fair increase. In our case we don’t have that, instead we have a new owner of a company we’ve had a long-standing franchise agreement with who is trying to get us to move to a cost-plus basis, which, as I’ve said before, I’m not comfortable with. Our current franchise with Recology runs to 2018. So that’s a bundle of issues related to this topic that we’ll have to deal with.
 
Next, changing the tone completely, we have the aftermath of the Grubbs murder. We don’t know yet what the resolution of this may be and the resolution may even be no resolution and living with uncertainty. It seems to me to be pretty clear that this next year the reverberation of this tragic event are going to be with our community, and properly so while we work through it. I have been getting suggestions from the community in terms of things we can do for each other, watching out for each other and you can find those suggestions on the City’s website. We have ten suggestions at the moment. Fairly soon I think we’re going to come to the point where we can bring that information together and run some sort of session with the Council and the public where we report back to the Council on the feasibility of these suggestions and then the Council, where appropriate, will decide whether it’s going to take any policy actions or take any steps to follow through on those.
 
The fifth major item has to do with the Capital Improvement Plan. We have not made significant capital expenditures since I have been Mayor, and I think possibly before that. When I first got into city government we were doing a lot of capital projects and you have to in order to keep your infrastructure and other major activities and resources going. We now have a backlog with multiple projects and we have a big funding problem. This is something we’re going to need to confront in this coming year.
 
Next we have the issue of Homelessness. Homelessness is not just an issue of street people on The Plaza, it’s an issue of people in danger of falling into homelessness because they can’t pay for their rent or they can’t pay for their kid’s school lunches or they’re in financial straits. It’s not going to go away and it may get worse.  Down on The Plaza we have a very complex situation where we have a combination of behavior problems that are damaging to the kind of ambiance that the merchants require to be able to function and the needs of people who are financially unable to take care of themselves. That’s not a one-to-one correspondence by any means. In fact, besides homeless people who are down on The Plaza we also have transients, and an issue which we have not address which has to do with the youth of Ashland who go and participate in that situation and that is a dangerous and difficult problem. The other point, if you think about it, is that the city of Ashland, the community of Ashland tends to vacate The Plaza in the high tourist season. So we leave a kind of vacuum in that there is nobody there who takes ownership of The Plaza on behalf of the community.
 
The last project I want to remind you of is the Transportation System Plan, which is moving its way towards the City Council. You will know it by its parts; the realignment of Wymer and Hersey Streets, the Road Diet trial, lively conversations that have been going on about changes in transportation and parking in downtown, and the Pedestrian Places overlays. This is another cluster of decisions that will be coming to us in this next year.
 
Context and Changes
 
Here’s the interesting thing, what’s the context? There are some important contextual issues in which these decisions are going to be made in this community. The first one is that we’re hiring a new City Administrator. While Larry has been doing a terrific job as an interim, the impact of replacing a long-term, highly skilled City Administrator with a new person is major because the City Administrator has his or her finger on the pulse of everything that is going on with this city and that’s the standard we’re used to. When you take that away over a prolonged period of time, we don’t know what all the implications of that are going to be. Imagine what new person; coming in during an election year, with these kinds of things on the table, a learning curve - depending upon where that person comes from, and also assimilating to the community. You can learn things quickly if you’re skilled and experienced but to assimilate into the community people have to live with you, they have to go through the cycles of the year, they have to go through having kids in school with you happen to be someone with a family. We all saw when Martha came in the timing it took for her to become a part of this community. But we have to make decisions on the seven things I pointed out earlier, and others, next year and the City Administrator is going to be crucial, so that will be a real challenge. It may also be that the new person brings some fresh insights or some special experience. No matter what, it’s going to be different.
 
The second contextual thing is that it’s an election year. As I think all of us would tell you, if we’re being really frank, there is a huge difference between running for office and what you think about and how you talk and how you comport yourself and trying to be part of a team of people you did not choose in doing the business of the City. I can say frankly, and this is self disclosure, that if I chose to run and am sitting here, every time I make a decision and start opening my mouth I think about it politically as well as working with the Council and City. So we’ve got that factor coming in.
 
The third contextual item is we’ve got a couple of important leadership changes in this community. Paul Nicholson has announced that he’s retiring at the end of the year from OSF. He’s one of the top managers of the city and a strong personality. That organization is already starting to go through shifts and adjustments with this future departure. Also, Ashland Community Hospital, as you do well know, is entertaining entering into some kind of partnership with some other organization, so the nature and culture of that major community institution is going to change. In that circle of key administrators who help hold this community together there are going to be important shifts.
 

 Part II: Community Organization
 
So, that’s the set up. Those are the key issues we face going into 2012. Now the question is, ‘what do we bring to those issues?’ How does this community organize itself to deal with these kinds of challenges? I’m going to go through a list, a spectrum, if you will:
 
1) We start with the City Employees, the 250 “invisible but essential” people, because, in fact, most of us do not see the people who deliver the services that we depend upon on a day to day basis to carry on our lives and do our business and do everything that we do in this city. We have very skilled, very responsible, knowledgeable city employees. I sometimes think that what we really should do is, have all 250 of the march in the 4th of July parade with banner for the part of the city where they work so that the city would actually see these human beings who make such a big difference in their lives.
 
2) Next, we’ve got the City Council, and it’s very interesting because the first question is not, are they cozy with each other but do they have the ability to deliver the goods on hard decisions and do they articulate? I don’t mean verbally, but rather when we’re working on a hard decision do I feel that each member of this Council is thinking about it and deciding independently rather than following some ideology or alliance with each other. I think they have done you proud in the last year and I want to tell you some of the examples of the tough decisions this City Council has made, not that I agreed with all of them, but I feel all of them were seriously considered. Going on chronological order, more or less, the City Council decided:
·         To provide water for the ODOT Welcome Center, even though a lot of people were urging us not to, but placed conditions on it that would counter-act a number of the problems opponents were concerned with.
·         Refunded substantial Community Development fees to the Oak Knoll homeowners who lost the eleven homes in that catastrophic fire.
·         Approved large building at 85 Winburn Way but put conditions on it in terms of parking in lieu fees and not allowing it to be used in the future for medical offices.
·         Leased 265 acres of the Imperatrice property to Standing Stone Brewing Company. I don’t mention that as such a difficult decision, but that was an important decision in this community.
·         Approved temporary use of Lithia Park for the OSF tent theater and did it promptly and the whole city government collaborated with that.
·         Approved a new gun club lease with substantial requirements on environmental and management practices.
·         Adopted an Economic Development Strategy to be updated on a yearly basis. That could prove to be fairly significant if we follow through on it well.
·         Approved the Road Diet and the Hersey/ Wimer Street realignment.
·         Succeeded in resolving an issue with Regional Problem Solving regarding Ashland population level. The City’s growth rate was artificially reduced and when we demanded it back we found it had been given to some other cities. The Council stood firm on behalf of the community because that affected our ability to get grants and participate in other kinds of programs.
·         Approved the Homelessness Steering Committee and that is a work in progress.
·         Approved a new agreement with the Mount Ashland Association and gave up the Special Use Permit.
·         Changed to a biennial budget.
·         Accepted the recommendation of the Public Safety Bond Committee to change from using the Grove as a future site for the Police department to remodeling the existing facility.
·         Approved an 11.1% rate increase for Recology while analyzing Recology’s request for a 23% increase.
 
3) The Mayor and City Administrator are kind of Siamese twins. The Mayor has access without power and the City Administrator has power without policy.
 
4) The City Commissions are institutionalized participation by citizens in government. We’ve had this year, for example, the Planning and Transportation Commissions collaborating on the Transportation System Plan.
 
5) Ad hoc Committees who work on projects. We have the AWAC, who are working on the Water Master Plan, the Homelessness Steering Committee, the Public Safety Bond Committee that we pulled back into service to be able to deal with the difficult problem of the Grove.
 
6) City Volunteers who fill the gaps in work that we need done that we would otherwise have to pay. We have CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), Police volunteers, and the FireWise organization.
 
7) Regional Partners. Regionally, this City benefits and participates in mutual aid agreements, which is a very powerful and community system for getting certain things done for emergency services. Jackson County, through Commissioner Skundrick, would like to work on additional ways in which we can collaborate. We also have the ACCESS food pantries, which is a county-wide organization that provides food pantries in Ashland.
 
8) Another way in which the community organizes itself is in Advocacy Groups. We have the Jackson County Fuel Committee, and Respect Ashland which is a group concerned about radiation. With respect to these organizations and others, what we are trying to do is establish a foundation of facts that we can mutually agree to that allows us to have more meaningful interactions with them and with their constituents. So we have less time spent sitting here with people talking to us when they don’t understand some of the fundamental facts that they are talking about. What we’re finding is that the advocacy groups don’t want to do that either because it undermines their credibility with Council.
 
9) Collaborators in another example. The E-Coli Study, the Ashland Pond Study, is an example. There are classes as SOU working on quality of life measures, which is something that may have bearing on our Economic Development Plan. Also, a number of our parks are pesticide free because neighbors who live around the parks get rid of the weeds without using pesticides.
 
10) We have Allies. The Wildlife Committee is an ally, they aren’t usually lobbying us to do things but they are trying to provide support services. SOU has a program going on this year that has to do with civility. All these allies are doing complimentary things that work along with what we do.
 
11) We have Independent Groups that take on projects that the Council can’t or doesn’t want to get involved with. They are groups such as, the Ashland Food Project, the Emergency Food Bank, and Food Angels. Ashland at Home is a new organization working to help people who have lost their partners remain in their homes in their later years. The Deer People is an independent group that brings a sort of liveliness and humor to help defuse a tense situation. The Homeless Coalition, the local Churches, etc. are all involved in their own projects.
 
12) Then we have Partners. These are major organizations. The Chamber of Commerce is a long-standing partner with the City of Ashland. The Community Health Center has for well over 30 years been providing sliding scale medical services for people who don’t have health insurance. St. Vincent de Paul does work for us with homeless and people in danger of homelessness. The Daily Tidings has just instituted a new project called, “Acts Matter” whose purpose is to generate Ashland specific content for the newspaper. Having your own newspaper is vital to a community such as ours and we’re really in danger of that running short on us so that is as step from the Tidings in extending a long-term relationship with us.
 
13) And then I have to say that we have Individual Contributors. Bill Heimann, if you’re watching this, will appreciate this. For those of you who are on his mailing list, which now numbers over 600, Bill puts out a preview of what’s going to happen at City Council meetings and he’s now added County Commissioner meetings from the point of view of a citizen trying to make sense of what’s going on in this complex world.
 
14) Finally, there is The Community as a whole. The community itself, without being mobilized by anyone, does certain things. For example, for two years now we’ve made it through the 4th of July holiday with no significant problems with people breaking our fireworks ban. We do not have the ability to enforce that ban and yet people cooperate with it even when they don’t like it. We also see self-initiated conservation with water, electricity, and trash. Also, the response to the Oak Knoll Fire, which came out of the community, helped people in many ways. We are also seeing this with the Grubbs investigation with people providing tips, suggestions, and contributing to the reward.
 

Part III: Conclusions
 
So, why do I mention all these things? I mention these things because I’m making the case to you, which you may agree with or not agree with, that we are really changing from being a city where people sit back and expect every problem to be handled by the City Council to a city that is starting to really get into solving its own problems, helping each other, cooperating with, supporting, and supplementing city government and, therefore, having a stronger sense of itself as a community. So, again, we are moving from a ‘let the City do it’ model to an ‘all hands turn to’ self-sufficiency model where the network of personal connections is key. All this stuff works on a person to person basis and communications greases the skids. You work with your enemies because the future is much more important than the past. This is the path to a sustainable community.
 
If you have any comments, complaints, or epiphanies about anything I’ve said tonight please let me know by e-mail at john@council.ashland.or.us. Thank you.

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