State of the City 2011
January 4, 2011
The State of the City (by which I mean both City government and the community of Ashland) is that the City Council and City Administrator, on the one hand, and the community on the other, have set Ashland on a good path for dealing with major changes that may affect it in the future. The next step is for the two to become more aware of what each other is doing and the connections between their two efforts. The purpose of this address to is elaborate that proposition.
Before I discuss the work ahead, I want to discuss the Federal, State and regional context. I also want to discuss want the importance of city services in our day-to-day lives, followed by the City's work that is already underway, and conclude with the work the City needs to take up in 2011 to secure our community's health.
In a certain sense what's happening on the national scene dwarfs events in Ashland and, to my way of thinking, the news is not good. I believe the greatest danger to our society is that individual citizens become so discouraged by actions at this level that they despair, become cynical and give up on the concept of our democracy. I propose instead that we revitalize and evolve government at the local level, which is where we all have the greatest opportunity to influence it.
Three examples are sufficient to convey what I mean: the Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited anonymous campaign spending by corporations and other organizations, the Federal Reserve's program to buy back large amounts of Treasuries, and the growth of what might be called a 'national security state'.
The first seriously raises the question of whether we still have a democratic electoral process. The second is admitted experimentation with the fragile economy. And the third, to the extent we're aware of it, does away with the most fundamental rights for which the founding fathers fought, in the name of protecting our way of life from terrorism. I think it's legitimate to wonder if the current form of American democracy is functional at the scale of a nation of 340 million people.
And yet, especially in Oregon, we have excellent people in our Congressional delegation who can moderate the behavior of the Federal government to our benefit on the local level. And because Oregon is so small, relatively speaking (not much larger than the combined population of the original thirteen colonies), we can have direct person-to-person interactions with these individuals. This is a genuine advantage in producing positive effects 'on the ground' because they can, and already have, supported and complimented our efforts in Ashland.
State of Oregon
The two principal factors here are projections of multi-billion dollar deficits for State government for the coming decade, and persistent high levels of unemployment, especially in our region. In-coming Governor Kitzhaber's assertion that this is our last real chance to reshape State government and we'd better get it right, makes sense. Paradoxically, the 50/50 split of the State Assembly may improve the chances of achieving the Governor's goal. Again we have excellent elected officials with whom to work and my hope is that our leaders will act as Oregonian's first and members of their particular parties second. And our ability to communicate with these officials is even better than with our Federal ones.
In terms of funding cuts, the most likely targets are public safety, including the prison system, and education. The effects of such cuts on Ashland would be both direct and indirect but definitely significant, as we will see when we tackle the homeless issue later this month.
At the same time, the Governor has implied actual restructuring of State government and also seeking waivers from the Federal government with respect to health care. I suspect there may be bi-partisan support for this approach and perhaps it will free up more resources for local government plus set a precedent for expanded waiver-granting by both the Feds and the State government in other areas as well (loosened constraints on transportation funds is a possible example).
With the election of two new members of the County Commission, it's time for the City of Ashland to increase our efforts to build a strong working relationship with Jackson County with other cities in the Rogue Valley including Grants Pass, in order to better communicate Ashland's perspective on issues important to the community and to discover ways in which we can contribute more to the well-being of the region.
Issues likely to come up in the following year include:
- Regional Problem-Solving - will the County correct Ashland's official growth rate?
- Various attempts to shift costs from the County to the City, for example responsibility for County roads within the City limits.
- Centralization of County services in Medford (relevant to the homelessness issue).
- Creation of formal and informal agreements between the County and City regarding the City/County interface, for example fire prevention measures, land use regulations, etc.
- Food security and localization of food production.
I want to point out a paradox in Ashland's economy...
On the one hand, compared to some of the retail centers in other cities, Ashland's downtown and shopping centers are remarkably healthy. We have a relatively low vacancy rate and Ashland's vitality through the downturn has increased, with OSF, the meals tax, the room tax and some retail businesses experiencing significant growth.
Why is Ashland's visitor economy thriving in unsettled times? It may be that Ashland itself is both a refuge and a reassuring example of what a town, and community, can be. Our well-known "quality of life" may be something more significant that simply 'amenities'; perhaps it's an expression of the basic values that make daily life worthwhile. Coupled with a growing sense of the importance of community shared among our citizens, we may have the beginning of a town identity that can survive whatever changes the entire country may go through in the coming years. (More on this later...)
On the other hand, there are indicators of significant economic suffering: for example, the number of households served by the Ashland Emergency Food Bank in 2010 was 25% greater than in 2009 and 64% greater than in 2008. (The total amount of food distributed was 247,000 pounds.) This is evidence that many more people are unable to meet all their basic survival costs, which in turn is relevant to the issue of homelessness in our community, particularly if we want to prevent people from becoming homeless. It is very important to the well-being of everyone in Ashland that our fellow citizens not fall into homelessness.
As is happening with many institutions of higher education, SOU has had a major increase in enrollment. This is a mixed blessing in that it means increased revenues but also increased loads on both faculty and staff that have already taken pay cuts - and it means increased economic pressure on University students as they try to come up with ways to meet living costs and additional academic costs as well..
What the City does for the community
After two years in the Mayor's job I've become convinced that being conscious of what the City does is an essential step forward in the community's development.
We are so habituated to the abundance of services we as a community acquire through the vehicle of City government that we mainly notice them when they don't function properly, and then we tend to be outraged. In my opinion this is exactly the opposite of the relationship and attitude we need in order to carry us through whatever changes are coming. It is a somewhat analogous to the way children tend to take their parents for granted except that City government is not our parents, it is a collective buying and service-providing organization that we created, inherited, own and manage and we depend on it to provide the supporting structure for our lives.
To wake up to the importance of the City's on-going services imagine, for each one, what it would be like for that service to stop tomorrow morning. For example:
- Electricity: no lights, no heat, no hot water, no computers or television or cell phones, no cooking, ... Yes, other cities get their electricity from private companies or separate utilities but the point is that one of the things we go in together on is electricity and in Ashland it is provided by our Electric Department.
- Sewage (wastewater system): this one is even more shocking if you imagine it suddenly not being part of what we expect to have every day. But, in fact, it's only there because of a dozen highly-skilled people who do whatever it takes to keep the service going.
- Water: I won't elaborate for every service but imagine of every single one of us, without this service. Yes, we'd buy bottled water at the store and arrange to truck in emergency supplies but that always-available, pure, clean, reliable flow from multiple taps is a treasure on which we rarely focus our attention.
Again, a small group of skilled workers sees to it that it's available to 24 hours a day. This includes maintaining the miles of piping throughout the city, balancing pressure in the system so that it forces water out through whatever leaks exist rather than letting contamination in. It also includes making sure there is water to the fire mains, especially when a big fire occurs, and taking care of the watershed (hmm, does this relate to the homeless issue and precisely how when we and the Forest Service don't really have the person-power available to police all 8,000 acres all the time? Also, why are we using drinking water for irrigating landscaping, washing dishes, fighting fires, etc.?)
I'll simply list the rest to trigger your imagination:
- Police services - how do so few individuals cover so many aspects of police work, which isn't just 'fighting crime'?
- Fire-fighting, prevention and emergency preparedness service - a dramatically important function, as we're becoming increasingly aware.
- Street maintenance
- Stormwater management
- Planning and building permits and inspections
- AFN broadband services
- Administrative support, including financial management
- City Recorder - all the official accountability and documentation; Plus managing much of the City's investments (did you know that?)
- Municipal Court - that allows us to enforce the City's own laws in a way that fits our community's character and values
- The Council, Mayor, City Administrator and Department Heads - essentially the executive team that sets and executes direction for the whole organization
One more thing: if in hearing or reading the above you wake up to a new appreciation and interest in the supposedly mundane service-providing activities of City government then you might wonder, "How do we determine the way they affect our special quality of life that was mentioned previously? And how do we make sure we're getting what we really want and need in the way we need it?" (Read on...)
Projects that change or develop the organization
Defining these projects and prioritizing them in relationship to the City's capacity to deliver, is the work of the Council. The list below includes what I consider the most important of the previous Council's goals as originally set in April of 2009.Council goal-setting occurs now in January in order to guide the development of the City budget.
The Budget process itself is a modified 'zero-based' approach: Department Heads are charged with presenting a budget based on the previous year's figures. If there are expected cost increases this requires choosing what to include and what to propose as a budget increase (not a category with a high rate of success these days). But Department Heads aren't free to choose; they must use a set of priorities generated from Council values, also established in 2009.
The process is a work in progress: the linkage between values and priorities is being strengthened and the priorities themselves are being refined. A next step is to develop observable 'measures' or 'indicators' of the delivery of services and the achievement of goals.
Notice that the framework being developed aims at connecting City activities with our "quality of life'. This is important (more later...)
The goal projects are:
The Water Plan: how to secure the community's water supply for the future, taking into account climate change, potential conservation, redundancy, treatment plant vulnerability, alternate sources, an appropriate rate structure and amortizing maintenance of the water infrastructure to be affordable over time.
The Economic Development Strategy that builds on our existing strengths, diversifies against seasonal lags and generates family wage income in the context of Ashland's cost of living (incl housing).
Stormwater and Wastewater Plans - to ensure the costs of both systems, in conjunction with the drinking water system, are affordable at all points in the future (so that the City doesn't get caught with infrastructure costs the community can't afford).
Transportation System and Land Use Plan - in my opinion this must be a transportation plan that is built around public transit and alternative transportations means (although personal vehicles will be part of any plan for the foreseeable future) -and such a plan has a land use counterpart because moving people efficiently around the town 'requires' that many live close to the transit route.
This is a very challenging task because conventional wisdom says it isn't affordable to build such a system in a town as small as ours. However I believe we need to create a spectrum of assumptions - about different means of public transit including ones that don't exist yet, fuel costs that may rise dramatically, possible subsidies and development grants - so that we at least have a plan for a true transportation system of the future. This is the only way we will be prepared to respond to major shifts in energy and environment that bear on transportation. We may just run busses or jitneys or possibly get waivers from Federal transportation laws that increase the cost of transportation systems, or privatize the system...but we have to have a plan.
Dealing with the town's homeless situation in a comprehensive way (I'm enhancing the 2009 goal here and guessing how the new Council might modify it - but it's clear the problem is much more complex than it is described in the media or on the Comments-to-Council listserve. And many entities, both public and private, have resources and interests in its many facets of this issue.)
Of the many, many facets of this extraordinarily complex topic with a one-word name two have surfaced as needing attention: is it right for the City to ban camping altogether if there are no available facilities without a place to sleep? And, what can we do about panhandlers who are verbally aggressive towards visitors, residents and workers in the Downtown area but manage to stay within the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment? The Council is planning to work on the issue in January and will be coordinating with other entities that have interests or responsibilities with various facets thereof.
Improving the predictability and efficiency of the land use, building code and fire code permitting and approval process. This is something that's easy to espouse during a political campaign but has proven difficult to deliver on. The root of the problem, I believe, is the ever-growing set of laws and regulations that govern development. The City creates them, as does the State and sometimes Federal government. They play an important role with respect to Ashland's quality of life and economic resiliency but they have become so complex it's very difficult for City staff and the Planning Commission to apply them in a clear, efficient and predictable way.
Completing the Snowberry Creek affordable housing project on Clay Street. If you think about it, affordable housing is an important tool in keeping people from becoming homeless.
Financial sustainability (not just "stability") of the City government: Besides the infrastructure Master Plans described above, and the organizational and personnel planning, we also have at least four big financial issues to grapple with: health care benefits, PERS, the possibility of significant inflation as one manifestation of the instability of the world economy, and potential instability in financial markets and therefore the City's ability to borrow to pay for long-term projects. (It should be noted here that the City is currently carrying a backlog of more than $50 million dollars worth of deferred capital projects.)
Promoting volunteerism - this is how the goal was expressed in 2009 but I think the Council and I have a much richer and substantial vision of what this amounts to and its significance for the future of our community (see more in the Some Final Thoughts section).
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project - I've left this project for last because it has multiple dimensions: first it's a state of the art effort to reduce fuels that have built up in our watershed over many years due to fire suppression and which increase the chances of catastrophic wildfires. This project involves multiple stakeholders working together to achieve the overall fire management goals while protecting endangered species, old growth forest, erosive soils, and specialized scientific research areas at the same time. It really is a working laboratory and is probably unique in its field because of the blend of expertise this community, including the Forest Service itself, is able to bring to bear on the project. Also we were able to tap significant stimulus funds for the project from the Federal government (with excellent backing from our representatives in Congress).
At the same time it is a very sensitive political/economic project because of competing interests between timber companies and environmental organizations over the threat of wildfires being used as a justification for logging in wilderness areas - so the more successful the AFR the more, some environmentalists fear, it opens the door for logging the wilderness.
The Work To Be Done
The Council Goals just described were laid out in early 2009 and I believe they were and are comprehensive and visionary. At the same time, there are some missing pieces that now need to be added they are:
- Formulate an explicit energy plan for City government that addresses issues of climate change.
- Publicize the multiple activities currently underway in City government to promote sustainability and amalgamate them into an overall sustainability policy for the City. As a community Ashland has been involved with sustainability for decades. Let's take credit for what we're doing and use it as an additional way to attract visitors and business to our town?
- Ensure that those aspects of food security and localization appropriate to a municipality (markets, community gardens, special water rates for food production, municipal composting, etc.) receive adequate support from both the City and the community.
- Encourage efforts to develop a regional financial infrastructure that will connect local capital with local investment needs.
Also encourage exchange between out of work but potentially productive individuals and those who need what they can produce, i.e. regenerate an economic infrastructure for the unemployed and the 'unprovisioned'. With roughly 13% unemployment in Jackson County we are 'wasting' significant amounts of unproduced goods and services every day, that are lost forever.
Some Final Thoughts
There are two main themes I'd like to highlight before drawing this description of the state of the City to a close.
The first has to do with re-framing the idea of 'quality of life' from a secondary attribute of the lives of Ashland's citizens to a central organizing principle that guides the way in which we allocate governmental resources and that is a foundation of our economy and our life as a community. I would propose that Ashland's quality of life is one of our principal assets that can carry us through externally driven changes that may defeat other cities.
This may be conjecture on my part but I think that our quality of life stands out more vividly in the current 'climate' in the U.S. and the world than it did a few years ago and if we take this into account (as the Visitor and Convention Bureau is doing with its emphasis on "The Ashland Experience", for example) we can strengthen our economy at a time when the overall economic environment is very uncertain to say the least.
Also our quality of life has the potential to be about more than pleasure, relaxation and cultural opportunities. It should encompass the whole sphere of healthy and vibrant community - that is, a state of connectedness in our town - that inspires people who visit here to form creative ideas about transforming their own communities.
If the world is indeed groping for a way of living that no longer simply exploits natural resources and creates a never-ending stream of consumerism and environmental damage then maybe the alternative isn't falling back to a primitive, survival-level existence. Maybe a shift in the way in which we perceive our lives together in this extraordinary physical place and the values we place on those aspects of our lives that are most important and most meaningful will be a key to moving more gracefully through the changes and challenges that are coming.
And as a companion piece to quality of life I suggest we consider the idea of 'quality of community'. By this I mean becoming more conscious of the many ways that we are building and sustaining a strong community that takes care of its members while providing them an environment in which their talents and creativity can flourish. Community need not be just about social welfare and how we come together in the face of emergencies. It may not be just about helping the less fortunate but also about the satisfaction of working together with each other on things from which we all benefit.
Taking some examples from this past year, the Ashland Food Project stands out, as does the more informal collaboration on discovering the sources of E Coli contamination in Ashland Creek that is being led by the Rogue River Keeper from KS Wild, working with individuals from SOU and the community in general and collaborating with the City's Public Works Department. We also should recognize the community celebrations that are produced by the members of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce that attract visitors but also enrich our entire community. And there's the new Farm to School program that's bringing locally grown food to our school children.
Now I'm sure many of you are wondering why I'm not mentioning some other worthwhile activity that you know of and which is equally deserving of recognition. This is just my point: this community has an instinctive impulse towards creative actions that enhance our shared existence (the Ashland Woodland Trails Association or the No Frills Shelter or the solar powered green house at ScienceWorks, for example - and more names burgeon up). We do these tasks and projects for ourselves and each other and for the reward and challenges of the work itself. This is an important fundamental characteristic of living in this city, which will benefit us more the more we recognize it for what it is and see it with fresh eyes.
A remarkable number of individuals are involved with City government itself; for example:
- Well over 100 people on 18 commissions and ad hoc committees
-Parks and Recreation Dept. (more than 100 active volunteers): Garden maintenance at North Mountain Park, special events, docents, special projects etc.
-Ashland Fire and Rescue (more than 200 active volunteers): CERT (light search and rescue, small fire suppression)
-Senior Center (about 50 active volunteers): Reception duties, meals on wheels home delivery and lunch volunteers
- Police (25 active volunteers): Downtown foot patrol, summer bike path patrol, vacation house watch, mail courier, radar board
Plus we have the activities of the churches and service organizations and OLLI and the volunteers at the Hospital; and the list goes on and on...
And in these things we do together for ourselves and each other we tap the enormous potential of our diversity as individual human beings living together and being forced to relate to our differences.
You can't get away from differences and diversity. They can be an irritant and provoke us to cruel polarization and vilification of one another. Or we can create little spheres of social distance around ourselves, avoiding eye contact as we walk down the street, and become a lifeless community of zombies (which I believe is why so many larger cities are so 'dead' in their central cores). Or we can meet each other as unique individuals, give each other the respect of understanding the other person's perspective, and break through to that 'space' in which our differences become our greatest assets in a resilient, creative and resourceful community.
I believe what I have described in this address is our opportunity for 2011 and beyond, and I invite us all to make Ashland a town that increasingly creates its own future.
Note: City Staff have written a draft to assist me in preparing this address. I believe it contains valuable information and will make it available on the City website as a companion piece. What I want to do with the above address is place the subject (the state of the City) in a context and also discuss what this means for all members of the community. Also this address contains my personal perspective and I welcome commentary, dissent and amplification.