Salem seeks help with public safety costs, homeless services during 2023 session

Salem city leaders hope to get help from the Oregon Legislature this year to address budget challenges and provide more sustainable services for homeless residents.

They’re also seeking a law that would allow the city to set up mobile speed cameras for traffic enforcement, and money to mitigate mudslide hazards along South River Road.

The 2023 session begins Tuesday, Jan. 17, with Salem’s legislative efforts guided by lobbyist Justin Martin.

Ahead of the session, city councilors last year adopted a list of priorities they’ll seek to convince Oregon’s senators and representatives to adopt.

As the city’s federal money is set to run out next year, Mayor Chris Hoy said the city’s most pressing needs are sustaining basic city services and continuing to fund homeless services that expanded during the pandemic.

The city is facing an unbalanced budget for 2024, with the cost of providing basic services like fire, police and parks through the city general fund costing about $10 million more than what Salem expects to collect in property taxes and fees

To bridge the gap, Salem will focus lobbying on securing an annual payment from the state which is intended to make up for the extra costs the city incurs by being the state capital.

Hoy introduced a similar bill during his brief tenure as a state representative in 2021, which would require the state to make an annual payment to the city to cover the cost of the public safety services. The bill didn’t specify an amount.

Hoy said the ask is driven by the high amount of state property in Salem and the amount of first responder time spent handling calls from state institutions — about 3,000 calls per year.

The bulk of those are fire and medical calls from Oregon State Hospital and state prisons, he said.

The large amount of land owned by the state in Salem also affects the city budget, since state land is exempt from property taxes.

As college towns, both Corvallis and Eugene have a larger amount of state-owned land than Salem, Hoy said, but the state’s largest universities also provide police forces and other services to defray some of those expenses.

“They have a larger percentage of their land, but we have a higher market value and impact,” he said.

The city is calling the concept “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT. Hoy said it’s something many other state capitals have.

While the money would go specifically toward public safety, it would ease strain on the city budget, making it easier to pay for other services.

“If we could get help with the funding for those things, that would help relieve money for other things,” he said. “We do need ongoing homeless funding as well.”

Salem is hoping for legislative help to fund the city’s sheltering program, which includes micro shelter sites operated by Church at the Park, at a cost of about $9 million per year. They’re also hoping to secure $2.1 million per year to operate a new navigation center set to open this year, and a sobering center, which would cost $1 million over two years.

Housing and homelessness will be a major focus of the 2023 session. A group of Oregon mayors organized by the League of Oregon Cities floated a proposal in late 2022 for ongoing state money to address homelessness.

That’s something Hoy and city leaders support, but the amount being discussed — about $40 per city resident per year — wouldn’t be enough to sustain Salem’s services.

“Ideally we need an ongoing source of funding because having to go back every session is just not a great way to run a program,” Hoy told Salem Reporter.

City leaders will also lobby for a law change allowing Salem to set up mobile traffic enforcement cameras. Current state law only allows specific cities, including Portland and Beaverton, to operate mobile speed cameras.

Hoy said expanding that to allow other cities including Salem would make city streets safer without requiring more police time to enforce traffic laws.

“For me it’s not about revenue. For me it’s about changing driver behavior,” Hoy said.

“We’re constantly talking to the (police) chief about traffic enforcement and he’s constantly telling us we can’t do the big things you’re asking me to do, let alone those things,” Hoy said.

He said speed and driving complaints are the number one issue councilors hear from neighborhood associations, and the council is concerned about the number of cars hitting pedestrians and crashes across the city.

The city is also seeking money for a project to mitigate slide hazards along South River Road at a cost of about $20 million, and $2 million for renovations to the Peace Plaza public square.

River Road sees about 12,000 vehicle trips daily, connecting south Salem and much of Polk County to the I-5 corridor. Since 2005, 21 mudslides have occurred along the road, according to a city project description.

With funding, the city would construct a 1,300 foot wall along the stretches of road most susceptible to mudslides.

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

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.