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MONDAY 8-07-23 Bill Meyer Show Guest Information
(Podcasts on www.BillMeyerShow.com)
7:10 Dylan Plummer with the Sierra Club joins me to discuss a settlement with Avista. Here’s the release:
Advocates reach settlement with Avista to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, expand low-income efficiency programs
The utility would also be required to restrict political spending that undermines state climate law
Portland, Ore. – A historic settlement in a contested rate case between Oregon’s second largest gas utility and intervening organizations will require Avista to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, dramatically expand low-income weatherization programs and restrict political spending by the gas company that undermines state climate law.
The settlement will still be subject to approval by the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which is expected in the coming weeks.
“This settlement is a huge victory for working Oregonians, who will no longer have to shoulder the costs of expanding Avista’s fossil fuel infrastructure and support the utility’s anti-climate lobbying and litigation,” said Jaimini Parekh, senior attorney for Earthjustice. “The writing is on the wall — Oregon is on the path to electrification and utilities like Avista need to prepare for this transition.”
This settlement is the first in Oregon to phase out costly fossil fuel subsidies that perversely promote the construction of new gas pipelines for use in homes. These subsidies, called line extension allowances, cut the cost for new residential customers to connect to gas utility service – but at a significant burden to ratepayers. An analysis by the Citizens’ Utility Board found that Avista has charged ratepayers as much as $42,032 just to connect one house to gas utility service. These subsidies drive up rates for all customers, while promoting continued reliance on methane gas in homes – a major source of climate and air polluting emissions. Phasing out the use of methane gas in homes and buildings is critical to meeting Oregon’s statewide climate goals.
The settlement also prohibits Avista from charging ratepayers for its anti-climate litigation costs and political activities. As previously reported, Avista sought to recover $57,000 from ratepayers to fund its litigation to overturn the Oregon Climate Protection Program (CPP). The program is one of the state’s bedrock climate policies that requires gas utilities like Avista to decarbonize by 2050. The settlement removes this cost from customer rates, and also deducts an additional $90,000 in costs associated with Avista’s participation in the American Gas Association (AGA) and NW Gas Association. These trade associations have sought to undermine climate action at the state and federal levels with misleading advertising, lobbying, and litigation. Thankfully the cost of these political activities will no longer be borne by Avista ratepayers.
7:35 Dr. Carrie Gress, author of The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us (Out on August 15th) As kids are heading back to school, the latest study shows that in a survey of 12th-grade girls, 30% identified as liberal (which rose from 19% the year prior), while only 12% identified as conservative. In contrast, 25% of 12th-grade boys identified as conservative. This gap between the sexes continues to widen on political alignment.
Dr. Carrie Gress understands why liberalism and feminism sounds so enticing to young girls (read her Daily Wire article here). But does it really empower women? Dr. Gress breaks down the feminist movement in her new book: The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us (August 15th) and shows where this leaves women in the 21st century.
Dr. Gress wants to restore real “womanhood.” First, by defining what being a woman truly is (biologically, with the capacity for motherhood), secondly ending the vilification of men, and lastly revitalizing the family unit and protecting our children.
The bestselling author of Theology of Home, Dr. Carrie Gress shows that fifty years of feminism has devalued the attributes, virtues, and strengths of women completely. She warns if we continue to “smash the patriarchy” this radical movement will eliminate women all together.
8:15 Dr. Dennis Powers and today a breakdown of the massive breakdown in City of Ashland finance from ACES:
An ACES Assessment
ACES was established six years ago out of a concern about overspending by the Ashland City government. Due to several factors, this will be our final assessment. Continued oversight is needed and it is our hope that more fiscally responsible councilors will be elected.
Don’t believe all that happy budget rhetoric from Mayor Graham, five of the six City Councilors, City Manager Joe Lessard, the Finance Office and their supporters in the media. Ashland has not achieved financial stability.
A review by Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability (ACES) has concluded that Ashland’s city government faces a dire financial future which will require either massive spending and personnel cuts in future years or creation of a new taxing authority that will raise property taxes substantially (possibly double) or some other major revenue raising source.
t’s a harrowing future for a city that already is unaffordable for more than 50% of residents.
Everything is not fine in City Hall. Over the past 14 years, the city has been on a spending spree as ACES has highlighted since 2017. And, spending will escalate dramatically in the next two years under the 2023-25 budget approved by the City Council on June 6th.
Here are some relevant facts from the city and US Census Bureau:
- The city’s budget has increased almost 150% over the last 14 years, from $80 million in 2009 to almost $195 million in 2023.
- The population of Ashland has remained flat during that time – 21,345 in 2009 versus 21,285 in 2022.
- In 2009, 13% of Ashlanders were over 60 years old. Now, it’s almost 35%. At this rate, 50% of Ashlanders will be seniors in 10 years.
- Adjusting for services other cities may not provide, there is one Ashland city employee for every 96 citizens. In other Oregon cities our size, the average ratio is 1 employee for every 234 citizens.
- In the 23-25 budget, City Manager Lessard budgeted 266 full-time equivalent employees (FTE’s), the most ever.
- Only one of every five city workers lives in Ashland so city employees’ salaries aren’t supporting Ashland’s economy. And taxpayers still pay top staffers a car transportation stipend each month, contradicting our climate policy goals.
- Climate enthusiasts have taken over the Council. Instead of striving to make Ashland an affordable sustainable community for its residents, policy focuses on determining an environmental score on your home, eliminating cars and converting your stove and water heater to costly electric replacements.
The 2023-25 budget approved by the City Council on a five to one vote is the most irresponsible ever. At a time when the overall population is stagnant with retirees replacing families and working people, the Council approved adding more than 20 additional city employees to an already bloated workforce at a cost of millions that will come due in future years.
This is at a time when the city’s future is in peril:
- The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the major driver of the city’s tourism economy, is operating on a greatly reduced schedule. The 2024 season has yet to be announced.
- Southern Oregon University is cutting costs and consolidating programs to fill a $15 million deficit. Enrollment has fallen 33% since 2013.
- The hospitality and business community are hurting. Office and retail space is empty. Membership in Ashland’s Bed and Breakfast Network has dropped 70% from 30 to 7.
Meanwhile Ashland’s city government continues to spend taxpayer resources with reckless abandon pretending all is well. The 23-25 budget approved by the Ashland city council doesn’t even contain a table of contents –apparently on purpose – making it difficult to find accurate figures.
Overall, the budget is up $80 million in just two years, approximately 20 percent over 21-23. General fund expenditures are $7 million more than general fund revenues. The budget is balanced with an estimated $9 million taken from reserves. Though much of these reserves resulted from staff vacancies, those positions are now being filled. When the 25-27 budget is created, these reserves won’t be available.
Moreover, in the 23-25 budget, capital construction projects totaling $130M are paid with borrowed dollars. This includes $1 million in improvements to the fiber network and millions more for parks, streets and sewage plant work. The giant planned expenditure is a new water treatment plant, now officially estimated to cost at least $65 million, double the figure quoted last September.
Do you think our elected city officials listen? Councilor Paula Hyatt and appointed Mayor Tonya Graham claimed it was essential to spend $40,000 for a survey last fall so Ashlanders could be heard. The result: the top recommendation by Ashland citizens was closing the Oak Knoll golf course which has lost $200,000 annually for many years. Under the approved budget not only will the golf course remain open, but $550,000 will be spent on golf course improvements. So much for listening to the voice of the people!
According to state law, the city must have a balanced budget. That means all expenditures must be offset by an equal amount of revenue.
In two of the last three years, the city’s budget was only balanced with COVID relief funds provided by the federal government and by using funds budgeted to hire staff who were never hired.
Previous finance directors repeatedly warned for more than 10 years that the city can’t afford to fund existing programs at current levels, let alone create new programs. City Councilors ignored these alerts and created four new programs.
City utility rates are among the highest in the state already due in part to the high special “add on” fees enacted to deal with general fund budget deficits.
If you want to build in Ashland, System Development Charges (SDC) and permit fees for anything related to building are excessively high and were actually increased during this year’s budget process.
Ashland city employees are exceptionally well paid. Before the 12 percent pay raise approved last year, more than 70 percent of city workers received in excess of $100,000 a year in total compensation and more than a half dozen exceeded $200,000. A Citizens Budget Committee member request in May 2023 for updated employee compensation data was rejected by the full budget committee Mayor Graham and five councilors also opposed access to this data.
Unlike Oregon state workers and city employees in Portland and other municipalities, Ashland city workers receive an annual six percent tax free bonus. As a result of sweetheart labor agreements, taxpayers pick up the six percent annual employee payment into the retirement fund in addition to the six percent employer contribution. City workers pay nothing into their retirement programs.
The capital improvement plan proposed by city staff (not elected officials or our citizens) shows $300M in spending on future projects. With inflation and interest rates at multi decade highs, paying for these projects will be crippling for many if not most in Ashland.
Where will the money come from in future years to pay the rising current expenses and repayment on bonds? Under state law, the city can’t increase the property tax rate, the main source of general fund revenues.
It’s our understanding that Mr. Lessard has already looked into the creation of a special taxing authority for either parks or fire and rescue. A special district could enact a property tax over and above the current city tax rate substantially increasing taxes on Ashlanders without adding services.
In addition, payments on bonds will be borne by utility ratepayers. Currently, Ashland’s charges for water, sewage treatment, electricity, storm drains and street use are among the highest in the state. These monthly utility charges have increased over 150% in the last 14 years. With more than $130 million in capital spending in the next two years alone, utility rates will soar. Over 30 years, bond payments could exceed more than $200 million.
By 2043, additional capital spending will be required to replace the city’s existing sewage treatment plant. With borrowing rates at 4%, the cost of building that plant in today’s dollars will be about $130 million. Where are those funds going to come from? Utility ratepayers, of course.
These increased taxes and utility rates are going to make Ashland an even more unaffordable place to live for many. Currently 56% of residents face monthly housing costs of half of their income.
In addition to young families, many of the increasing number of retirees in Ashland with fixed incomes will find it harder and harder to make ends meet.
Our school district continues to see fewer young families coming to Ashland. It isn’t that families aren’t moving, they ARE moving but just not to Ashland. You have a better chance of seeing a unicorn in Lithia Park than a family with three or four kids moving to town. This is a stark difference from what was happening just 10 years ago.
Things to Keep an Eye On
Ashland has adopted a major anti-global warming program under the name Climate and Energy Action Plan. In the past 10 years, $7 million has been spent on conservation programs. CEAP has crept into everything the city does.
For example, the Council recently supported installing solar panels on the proposed new water treatment plant at a cost of $2 million. The consultants hired by the city justified it by claiming Ashland gets over 300 days of sun each year. They forgot to mention the estimated cost recovery time is 90 years, during which time, the solar panels will need to be replaced several times.
A major electrify Ashland movement is contemplated that initially will ban less expensive gas appliances and heating and cooling units in new residential construction.
The CEAP program, meanwhile, has ignored the proposed water treatment plant project, the largest in the city’s history. No environmental impact study has been conducted or is contemplated so there is no assessment of the potential environmental damage from this major project or how that would compare with far less expensive updates to the existing plant.
And contrary to the anti-car rhetoric of some, the city government continues to budget more than $70,000 on car allowance payments to 12 top city workers. Yes…the city subsidizes city department heads for commuting from home. These payments go to those who live outside Ashland, as most city employees do, as well as to those who live within walking distance of their jobs.
The 2023-25 budget includes a major increase in ambulance services requiring the hiring of 4 additional Emergency Medical Treatment employees. The budget projects $9.5 million in increased charges to people for ambulance services with a write-off of more than $4 million in uncollectable charges.
This effort will put the Ashland Fire and Rescue Department in direct competition with Mercy Flights, which offers Ashlanders and most others in Southern Oregon with unlimited ambulance services, including air transports to Portland hospitals, for $125 a year. Without full financial projections, or clearly showing how the math works, the Council approved the department’s expansion.
According to an ambulance consultant survey completed a few years back at a cost of $50,000, by FY31 the city will need to find nearly $25 million more to fund current ambulance operations. That estimate did not include the four additional department hires included in this budget at roughly $200,000 a year per person. Sadly, because the fire chief (who doesn’t live in Ashland) won’t agree to outsource the ambulance operations which is roughly 90% of the monthly activity of the department, Ashlanders will have to pay much more for a service, adequately and less expensively provided to all other communities in Southern Oregon by Mercy Flights
Ashlanders would be well served to keep an eye on the never-ending whims and wants of the Fire Department. In the last Council elections, the fire union told some candidates that the union would not support any candidate who had any concerns about the cost of the department or the budget.
In recent years, the city has experienced costly personnel issues. The illegal firing of the city’s senior center program director led to a $538,000 settlement, along with increased costs of operations of the senior center. False statements made by a city official in a court deposition may have contributed to the size of the settlement.
Another court case, this one over the dismissal of a Public Works engineer, led to the city agreeing to pay him $520,000, half for lawyer’s fees. Currently, another $750,000 lawsuit is pending over the alleged sexual harassment of a female golf course employee by four of her male associates including the parks director who recently resigned.
An agreement to double payment of retirement benefits to a former city attorney was stopped at the last minute by an interim city manager who caught wind of the plan. City workers provide valuable services to the people of the city. They deserve our respect and proper treatment, but not special treatment.
It’s the duty of elected officials to represent the citizens of Ashland. The Council needs to exercise its authority over city operations and policies and not rubber stamp whatever the city manager and department heads propose.
Changes ACES Recommends
Go Regional Instead of going it Alone
- Consolidate sewage treatment with the Rogue Valley Sewer Services organization which operates a treatment plant in White City that serves most other municipalities in Jackson County.
- Expand water access from the Medford Water Commission instead of building a $65 million new plant in the Ashland watershed.
- Merge rescue services with the non-profit Mercy Flights.
- Merge fire operations with District 5 in Talent.
- Close the Ashland Municipal court and send cases to the Jackson County Justice Court in Central Point.
Be Responsible with City Tax Dollars
- Negotiate end of taxpayer pickup of employee share of retirement contributions.
- Close Oak Knoll golf course or contract its operations with a private party.
- Eliminate monthly auto commuting benefits for top city employees.
- Go with the Council approved remodel of the Community Center, instead of the Public Works Department’s plan at four times the cost.
- Eliminate low priority city programs and de-emphasize global environmental matters that require national and international solutions.
- Reduce staffing and re-negotiate contracts with unions.
Revenue Raising Ideas
- Sell surplus land & buildings, such as Briscoe School, the property northeast of I-5, the sewage treatment plant and the property across Ashland Creek from it.
- Sell Ashland Fiber Network.
- Sell the city’s Electric Department to Pacific Power.
ACES LAST REPORT
Since its founding in 2017, ACES successfully supported the move to a city manager form of government; fought an ill-conceived City Hall bond issue, the proposed promotion of a city employee to become the first city manager without any search and the parks food and beverage tax grab. We convinced several elected City Council candidates in the 2018 and 2020 elections to pledge support for sound fiscal policies. And, we’ve been careful in accurately assessing city issues.
We’ve kept our finger in the dike and brought to your attention outlandish policies and spending contemplated by our elected officials. We helped prevent new surcharges, taxes and fees on utilities and staved off unnecessary and unjustified capital improvement projects. But due to the moves by several of its founders out of Ashland and the planned departures of others active in recent years, this is ACES’s last report on city spending.
It’s now apparent, however, that those forces in favor of continued overspending and increases in city taxes and utility rates are fully in charge of city government.
While ACES has been demonized on social media by some extreme elements in Ashland, the overspending we have highlighted has been based on our love for Ashland and our hope that it will continue to be a vibrant and unique part of Southern Oregon with a population that includes families and working age citizens. Without a change in direction, however, this may no longer be possible.