West Salem homeowners could soon pay around $17 more per year in property taxes as Polk County officials are asking voters in the coming weeks to approve a new public safety levy.
The county would not hire new employees if the levy is approved, but would keep on its payroll sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors who were hired under the public safety levy voters passed in 2015. An earlier levy is set to expire in June 2024, and the county can’t afford to keep those positions staffed without additional money, Commissioner Craig Pope said.
The levy would pay for the continuation of 14 sheriff’s patrol deputies, four corrections deputies and three prosecutors in the office of District Attorney Aaron Felton. It also would continue the county’s lease of one juvenile detention bed from Marion County under the levy.
The proposed tax would generate about $20.8 million between 2023 and 2027, Sheriff Mark Garton said.
The county will start mailing out ballots on April 27. Ballots need to be postmarked on or before Election Day on May 16.
The new levy proposes taxing Polk County residents 49.5 cents per thousand of assessed property value for five years starting Jan. 1, 2024. Under the tax proposed in the May election, residents would pay around $123 per year if their property has an assessed value of $250,000.
Polk County’s current public safety levy, which voters approved in 2019, taxes residents 42.5 cents per thousand of assessed value.
The existing levy is set to expire in June 2024. Pope said county officials have repeatedly prioritized re-upping the levy a year before it’s slated to run out.
Pope said relying on levies to fund basic staffing is a familiar scenario for local governments.
Garton said levy funds pay salaries for half of his patrol staff and one in six county jail employees.
He said the county would have one year of funding and two elections left to put the issue back in front of voters should it fail in May.
At the district attorney’s office, levy funds pay for nearly half of Felton’s prosecution division.
Officials say the county would have to cut public safety employees if the levy fails, with the sheriff’s office losing coverage and the district attorney’s office prosecuting fewer cases.
Pope said county officials realized in 2013 that it needed to regain the number of staff lost during the recession. They requested a public safety levy that same year, which failed.
Voters in 2015 approved a new levy for up to 45 cents per thousand of assessed value. The county hired 24 employees in the offices of the sheriff and district attorney, and rented two additional juvenile detention beds.
But the county taxed no more than 38 cents per thousand assessed through 2019 because its Board of Commissioners used federal timber payments to reduce the tax. Those payments have since fallen.
In 2019, Polk County residents voted to re-up the levy at 42.5 cents per thousand of assessed value. The tax did not pay for staffing changes.
Pope said the new levy doesn’t propose raising pay for employees, but would keep on nearly all those employees under the 2015 levy. “There have been cost of living increases and costs of business overall throughout the term of several levies,” he said.
Polk County Fire District No. 1, which includes Monmouth and Independence, is also asking voters to approve a new five-year tax levy that would include hiring additional firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The request comes as the short-staffed fire agency is failing to meet ambulance response time targets.
That levy would charge property owners within the district 78 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or about $156 per year for a home with an assessed value of $200,000.
Polk County sheriff, district attorney stump for $3 million per year public safety levy
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.