There has been much talk lately about having a budget for the city of Ashland that is sustainable. What is a sustainable budget?
Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Sustainability deals with whether something will be able to continue as it currently exists into the future without any negative consequences. Simply put, can the city of Ashland continue as it is without depleting its resources?
We are all for sustainability when it comes to our resources — whether it is personal, environmental, or economic. When city officials state their priorities, sustainability has been one of their top stated goals. This has been shown in their decisions regarding resources — whether it is, for example, water or fossil fuels. City officials purport to reflect the values of the city’s citizens, we the people.
Sustainability must be an important goal for our economy, and part of that comes down to how the city of Ashland spends our money. One goal for any city is to balance the budget (required by the state) another is to have that budget be sustainable, to allocate our revenue so that it covers our expenditures into the future. If expenditures are in excess of revenues, sustainable solutions must be found.
It has been challenging these past two years due to severely decreased revenue — partially due to COVID-19, but also to the smoke and fires which preceded COVID-19. The city was lucky to get $4.3 million in federal funding to cover its shortfall. It would have been prudent when it became obvious that revenue would be dropping precipitously to take action then, but the city made few changes to address this; no real steps were taken towards a sustainable budget. Aside from some minor ups and downs of the budget (some revenues up, some expenses up), when you continue on the same trajectory the funding shortfall would not been replaced.
How could this then have been addressed? Usually this would be by a combination of finding new revenue sources as well as making difficult cuts to city personnel that everyone wants to avoid. There needs to be a thorough review of how the city’s money is being spent. Are there projects that could be cut or postponed? It would make sense to review all expenses, with the mindset of fix rather than replace. When you have something that breaks down in your home or apartment, you look at what you can afford to do and make decisions based on what money you have available. The city should be doing the same.
Since the downturn, the city needs to do the aforementioned assessment and then make long-term permanent changes. The current Ashland adjusted budget has mostly short-term changes, not the long-term ones that would address the $4.3 million shortfall in revenue of the current biennium and make possible a sustainable budget.
When it comes to reviewing city personnel, it is important to review the structure. Do we have enough folks doing the day-to-day work? Is it possible to make managerial cuts? Have management salaries been reviewed and frozen? Have management benefits been reviewed and curtailed as would be necessary for sustainability?
We all hope that the backbone of our economy will rebound to the levels before the smoke and the pandemic. We don’t know. We should be able to prepare for the worst, plan for the best and be flexible enough to do what is needed, whether it is up or down.
In any case we, as a community, need to think of ways to diversify our economy. We need to elect leaders who have the vision and gumption to do the right thing, even if it hurts while we come back.
We are for sustainability — not austerity. Austerity has been used to suck the resources from economies. It has been used to transfer wealth upwards. Without a sustainable budget we will never be able to provide the necessary resources for affordable housing. Without a sustainable budget all we will see is more posturing and no action.
We must look at things sensibly, plan accordingly, support those most in need to the extent this is possible and grow the city back to the fun, lively, vibrant city it was and we all want.
Leda Shapiro of Ashland is a former director of finance for AFSCME Council 36 and for Upward Bound House, both in Southern California.