City News

Salem seeking court fix after missing required sentence in infrastructure ballot measure

The city of Salem is seeking a court order that will allow them to move forward with a property tax measure to fund infrastructure improvements after leaving a legally required sentence off the November ballot.

City voters in November overwhelmingly approved a bond measure authorizing the city to issue up to $300 million in bonds to fund a decade worth of street and sidewalk repairs, new fire trucks, land for new fire stations and other infrastructure projects. The new bonds would replace city bonds from previous ballot measures that are expiring, which means the measure won’t raise property tax rates.

Over 41,000 Salem voters, 64%, said yes to the proposal.

But the ballot title for the measure was missing a legally required sentence notifying voters that bonds are payable through property taxes, and that voter-approved bonds are not subject to the property tax limits spelled out in the state constitution.

The city discovered the error Tuesday, according to a Thursday afternoon news release. The city’s counsel for the bond pointed out the error, city spokesman Courtney Knox Busch said.

The required sentence reads: “If the bonds are approved, they will be payable from taxes on property or property ownership that are not subject to the limits of sections 11 and 11b, Article XI of the Oregon Constitution.”

“You trust us to do important work and do it well and clearly we did not do that here,” said Keith Stahley, Salem’s City Manager, in a statement. “We understand the gravity of this error, we will learn from this mistake and will adjust our processes and systems to prevent it from occurring in the future.  Fortunately, there is a judicial remedy and we will be pursuing it as vigorously and quickly as we can.” 

The city can still move forward issuing the bonds through a process outlined in state law, but must first get a court order determining the city has legal authority to issue the bonds, despite the omission.

The city said its ballot title and explanatory statement clearly explained the impact on tax rates in simple terms, and that the legally-required disclosure was included in a public notice published in August in the Statesman Journal. It will rely on those statements when asking the court to determine that bonds can be issued legally.

The city said on the ballot statement that the measure “is not expected to increase Salem’s bond tax rate above the current rate of $1.20/$1,000 of assessed value thanks to payments for existing bonds decreasing in the future,” which remains true. 

Salem City Attorney Dan Atchison said the city will file a validation action in Marion County Circuit Court as early as Friday to address the error.

“Courts in other, similar cases, have determined that bonds could be issued. We deeply regret the error occurred and are working diligently to ensure the matter has no impact on the City’s ability to issue the bonds in response to voters’ overwhelming approval of the measure,” Atchison said in a statement.

The city plans to issue the first bonds as early as February, Knox Busch said. She said the need to seek court action should not delay that timeline.

“We believe we can resolve this quickly through the judicial process available to us,” said Mayor Chris Hoy in a statement. “By taking care of this as quickly as possible, we will avoid any potential delay in issuing the bonds and making the community investments in safety and livability that the voters approved in November. Salem voters have spoken. We intend to honor the commitment we made to our community and to the broad coalition that came together in support of the measure.”

Ben Morris, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, said he wasn’t aware of any other ballot errors this year over missing property tax disclosures, but said two other cities had errors affecting elections.

Ballots for both Newberg and West Linn contained errors in city council races. In Newberg, the November ballot incorrectly listed council candidates only for the district voters lived in, even though the city elects councilors at-large. The error required the city to hold a supplemental December election for council.

In West Linn, the council election was postponed until March after a ballot error incorrectly told voters to choose one candidate for council, despite two seats being up for election.

“When errors occur, the county clerk will work with impacted candidates and jurisdictions to remedy the error as quickly as possible. The remedies are situation specific. The Secretary of State’s role is to provide oversight. Our office works to protect voter intent, prevent confusion, and ensure that state election law is applied uniformly,” Morris said in an email.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.