On Wednesday, February 22, 2023, City of Ashland Mayor, Tonya Graham, delivered the State of the City Address at a Special Council Business Meeting. Please read below...
State of the City – Ashland – 2023
The state of Ashland is… hopeful. But it’s not the kind of hope that comes from simply having a positive outlook – although we tend to be optimistic here in Ashland. Instead, this hope comes from a clear-eyed understanding of the very real challenges we are facing and knowing that we have what we need to square up against these challenges and come out the other side stronger and more resilient.
We know this because we are already building on strength. In spite of the many vacant positions we have had across the City’s operations, over the past year:
On the affordable housing front…
Public Works had similar successes
- Low-income families moved into 89 new affordable rental units in Ashland and the City approved a 230 unit rental housing annexation, which includes 38 affordable units
- Community Development completed the Housing Capacity Analysis and updated its software to streamline the permitting process and make it easier to navigate for local residents and business owners
- The Council awarded over $400,000 in Affordable Housing Fund and Community Development Block Grants to Habitat for Humanity, OHRA, Maslow Project, and Rogue Retreat to help over 700 people
- Staff partnered with other southern Oregon communities to finalize the Water Sharing Intergovernmental Agreement and completed Storm Drain, Collection System, and TAP Master Plans that will guide future investments in our water and wastewater systems
- We added six electric vehicles to the City’s fleet
- And, we successfully navigated centrifuge dewatering issues at the wastewater treatment plant ending the year with no permit violations
What is a centrifuge dewatering issue you ask? I don’t think I can explain it very well, but our staff can, and they know how to fix those issues. So much of what the City does is like this. Day in and day out doing what it takes to maintain our systems and prevent service disruptions. Luckily, the rest of us don’t need to know the ins and outs of things like centrifuge dewatering issues.
Over at our fire stations, Ashland Fire & Rescue
- Responded to 5264 calls for service, including 946 fire calls and 4313 medical calls. Fourteen times a day, we called for help and they came
- Our fire department taught local realtors how to reduce wildfire risk and hosted classes on fire adapted landscaping and defensible space for residents and contractors
- In our watershed, our Ashland Forest Resiliency Project partners completed 429 acres of pile burns and underburned 143 acres for forest health and wildfire safety
- Our Wildfire Division burned an additional 160 acres inside and adjacent to the community
- We purchased two new ambulances and donated our older ones to our sister City, Guanajuato. It was a beautiful day when the Guanajuato firefighters came to drive them home
- Our Finance Department brought home the gold with another clean audit. Our ending fund balances are strong and we added $1.5 million to our reserve fund
- Staff rebuilt our Human Resources department, completed three labor negotiations, hired and oriented 67 employees, and reintroduced the annual Employee Appreciation Luncheon
Our Police Department handled over 27,500 calls for service – that’s 75 calls per day. As with the fire department, when we called for help, they came in spite of serious staffing shortages. The department has made significant gains in rebuilding those staffing levels.
Our officers were directly involved in saving 10 lives by rendering medical assistance. 10 lives. We are fortunate to have a police department led by law enforcement professionals who fully embrace community peace keeping and a team of officers who understand and work hard to address social equity and racial justice issues.
Our police department was with us as we came together once again for the Chamber of Commerce’s 4th of July parade, Halloween parade, and Festival of Light.
Our team in the Electric Department completed our Wildfire Mitigation Plan, purchased the Mountain Ave substation saving us $150,000 a year, responded to over 50 outage calls, and installed over 10,000 feet of underground cable.
We made some structural changes as well to improve efficiency and service levels. We combined IT and the Ashland Fiber Network under the new Department of Innovation and Technology and hired a director. We partnered with SOU and the Ashland School District on a whole community Emergency Operations Center. We brought communications and community engagement help back after a five-year hiatus. You have probably already noticed the improvement. We created an emergency manager position to oversee emergency planning and manage our emergency operations center in the event of future disasters.
Parks & Recreation
- Held a grand opening of the renovated Japanese Garden attended by over 2,000 people
- Re-opened the Ashland Senior Center, Daniel Meyer Pool, and the Ice Rink and resumed all mayor community events
- Opened 8 new pickleball courts with night lighting in Lithia Park
- Continued improvements in the Ashland Watershed trail system
In spite of our staffing shortages, our staff still managed to position the City to receive over $10 million dollars for projects like: installing solar panels at our service center, making improvements to Briscoe School, improving the TAP (Talent, Ashland, Phoenix) water system, identifying Safe Routes to School projects, helping residents stay healthy during smoke events, rehabilitating the taxiway at the airport, creating neighborhood wildfire fuel breaks, increasing homeless services and helping residents reduce their wildfire risk.
In addition to the good work of our staff, the volunteer spirit is alive and well here in Ashland.
- The volunteer-led Wildfire Risk Assessment Program performed nearly 200 wildfire home safety assessments for residents. Each assessment takes about two hours. These volunteers have added boots on the ground capacity to the fire department’s free wildfire inspection program and created a model for others to follow
- The Community Emergency Response Team or CERT has created a leadership team and conducted its first in person training post-Covid, bringing 12 new volunteers into the program
- A special thank you to the over 100 residents who serve on volunteer City commissions and committees, lending their time, expertise, and elbow grease to help the council and staff make progress on our shared goals
- Our Planning Commission does detailed, often thankless land use and planning work on behalf of the City and they do it extraordinarily well
- The Public Art Commission unveiled the Golden Connections installation at Railroad Park that honors the railroad and the Chinese laborers who built it. It also shepherded the process of Council approval for the art installation Ancestors Future: Crystalizing our Call
- The Housing and Human Services Committee helped Council develop a new policy for extreme weather sheltering that includes not only extreme cold, but extreme heat and wildfire smoke
- The Social Equity and Racial Justice Committee is helping the City meet its goals around social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion
There are many more accomplishments by our staff and volunteers – far too many to list here.
And, we know our challenges: severe economic disruption, accelerating wildfire risk, lack of affordable housing, the climate crisis, addressing inequity, and a bit of trouble in utility billing – just to name a few.
In 2023 we will focus on maintaining and improving our excellent public safety and essential services – fire, police, streets, parks and recreation, water, wastewater, electric, AFN, and airport. We will also be an exceptional partner with local organizations and neighboring governments to make real progress on the issues we care about most.
We will work hard across our community, and we will sometimes disagree – wildly. But we will also remain good neighbors, maybe even good friends, because that is what this moment in time is calling us to do.
And we will, from time to time, have good reason to laugh at ourselves. Because, let’s face it, we do quirky things here in Ashland. It’s part of our charm, and why many of us love living here.
All of this hard work is to reimagine the Ashland of the future and chart a course to get us there.
The Ashland of the future has a robust local economy. Its public services are well-funded. It is a leader in climate action. It is a diverse community because it has figured out how to provide affordable housing and childcare. It is lively and innovative. And, perhaps most importantly, it is authentically welcoming to all residents and visitors alike.
We are on the cusp of making incredible gains on the issues we care most about.
- We are working with the Chamber of Commerce to diversify our local economy. We will support local businesses that are already in transition wherever we can
- Staff will continue to support the Croman Mill Redevelopment project to provide a range of housing and commercial opportunities
- We will make a plan for Ashland Fiber Network’s future
- Public Works will complete road repair projects on Ashland Street and Mountain Avenue and design projects for Oak Street and Middle Clay Street.
- Community Development will implement the new Climate Friendly & Equitable Communities rules to help us move our climate goals forward. Later this spring they will work with Council to finalize the Housing Production Strategy and we will all get to work implementing it to protect and increase affordable housing in Ashland
- We will get the electric system master plan underway, and complete our Transportation System Plan update, and the Water Management and Conservation Plan
- The City will work with the US Department of Agriculture to develop a $10 million program to help local homeowners transition to high efficiency electric appliances and weatherize their homes
- Ashland Parks and Recreation will build the East Main Street neighborhood park, including the dog park, bike-skills park, and pump track. It will also improve aquatic recreation and competition options in Ashland and continue to improve and develop the hiking and mountain bike trail system
- Our Electric department will streamline incentive programs and focus more of those incentives on fuel switching to help us move our climate goals forward
- Our Police Department will focus on getting back to full staffing and re-establish the traffic and downtown officer programs, including cadets and park patrol
- We will do our best to position to the City to receive federal funding through the historic climate investments Congress passed last year
- This Council will figure out how to leverage surplus properties toward our shared goals.
- We will continue to look for ways to increase efficiency as we wrestle with the structural shortfall in our General Fund that limits our ability to maintain services year over year
- And, we are going to double down on our engagement with Ashland residents, including improving our website and finding new ways to share information and have conversations. The town hall last month was our first effort, but there will be more
I want to take a moment to speak directly to our staff. What I just shared is only part of what you have done over the past year to provide the foundation from which those of us fortunate enough to live in Ashland get our incredible quality of life. Thank you. We know how difficult it has been over the past three years with Covid, the Almeda Fire, and resignations across our operations. We also know that the lights stayed on, clean, clear water kept flowing from our taps, when we called for help, you came.
In this midst of these emergencies, Ashland Parks and Recreation stepped up to help our most vulnerable neighbors and keep us connected with each other and with the natural world. We are proud of the good work you all do. And we know how hard it is to cover your own job as well as part or all of someone else’s when there are vacancies. So, thank you for not giving up on us. The City is making good progress in filling vacant positions. As of today, we have only 19 vacancies across our operation.
What You Can Do
In settled times, community is about parades, sharing good times, and lending a hand to our neighbors. In unsettled times, community takes on a whole new meaning. In Ashland, it still involves parades, but it’s also about working together, sharing what we have, getting our hands on the rope, and leaning in hard to protect what we love. There is no doubt that we are in unsettled times, but unsettled times also bring great opportunity if we can strike the balance between steady and innovative.
People often stop me in the grocery store or on the street and ask me what they can do to help. Once, when I was younger and struggling with a complex problem, my father told me “do what you can see. By the time you’re done with that, you’ll know what to do next.” Here are a few things we can all see:
- Support local businesses so that they can thrive while we re-calibrate our local economy
- Be welcoming to students so that they feel connected to our community
- Fire-wise our homes and yards to protect ourselves and our neighbors
- Electrify our homes and vehicles to protect the climate
- Work to understand systemic racism and bias so that we can all help Ashland be welcoming to all people
- Help our neighbors. Just because it’s always a good idea to help our neighbors
- And let’s be ready to lean in and support initiatives that come from the City and our partners as we make our way through 2023
We are in a time of rapid, transformational change.That can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. We can move forward, protect what we love, and build the Ashland of the future if we stick together, work hard, and look after each other. Because here in Ashland, we are always better together.
Released February 23, 2023