REPORTER’S COLUMN: What I learned from talking to Salemites about a proposed tax on their paychecks 

Many attendees who passed Salem Reporter’s booth at the Salem Saturday Market over the weekend paused a good distance away, squinting to read the signs before mouthing “payroll tax?” 

Some shrugged, some shook their heads and others approached the booth to cast a vote with a sticky note.

Our booth had two poster boards, with the following questions for consideration:

“Do you support a new payroll tax to add police, fire and other city services?”

And, “Should Salem residents get to vote on a new payroll tax?”

Salem Reporter sponsored the 2023 market and set up our first booth July 1 in hopes of learning more about what Salemites thought of a city plan to tax workers to sustain and expand police, fire and homeless services.

A good number of visitors to our tent were hearing about the payroll tax for the first time, or only knew a little bit about it. Others were up-to-date from following the topic through my coverage and through council meetings.

Most people were eager to talk about the city. People cared about Salem issues, and shared knowledge about niche subjects like urban renewal areas, ongoing construction projects and the history of city policies. 

What was nice about sitting at the market was I had no idea who I would talk to next. Usually, with reporting, I’m the one doing the outreach to ask people about certain stories. Saturday was a mixed bag – with responders of all ages and occupations.

You all had great questions, and I enjoyed meeting everyone face-to-face. You’ve given us some new story ideas to pursue in the coming weeks, and some suggestions to do even deeper coverage of the city.

On our first board, asking whether people support the tax, opinions were split. Seventeen people placed their sticky notes on the yes side, 19 on the no side and one person put it on the center line but said she was leaning toward no. 

Many of those who didn’t support the tax said that they wanted the city of Salem to reprioritize its budget. They were concerned that the operations fee — a monthly charge on utility bills — has increased several times already, and they wanted to know if the city had considered other cuts or revenue options.

Many no voters didn’t want to pay for homeless services – which make up about $3 million out of the $27.9 million expected from the tax – and wanted to be able to pick and choose what they funded.

Others who said no weren’t interested in funding additional police, and several mentioned the money that went into building the new $62 million police headquarters at the corner of Commercial and Division Streets, $11 million more than voters approved in 2017.

On the yes side, the people we spoke with wanted to see more funding toward emergency services and thought the pricing was reasonable for what it would bring in. They said they supported the city’s efforts to increase police and fire staffing, and were sympathetic with the revenue issues the city faces.

In its Monday city council meeting, part of what the council will consider is whether to implement the tax without taking it to voters in November.

If councilors approve the tax as written, it would be effective as early as July 1, 2024. The city would have to take the tax to voters no later than July 1, 2031. If voters disapprove then, the tax would end in December 2031.

Respondents at the Salem Saturday Market were nearly unanimous: they wanted a say, and they were disappointed that they might not get one.

One responder was on the fence about it, saying they wanted more information first.

One responder said he doesn’t want it to go to a public vote, because “That’s why we elect city council.”  Though his sticky note was alone on Saturday, it’s the same sentiment I’ve heard from several others in my email inbox in the past few weeks.

One woman was clearly excited, smiling as she picked up a sticky note to place on the “yes” side.

“Nobody’s ever asked me at the farmer’s market about something like this,” she said.

If the city council opts to push the tax through, it might be the only vote she gets. 

People weighed in on the city of Salem’s payroll tax proposal at Salem Reporter’s booth at the Saturday Market on July 1, 2023. The bottom right corner has two sticky notes showcasing contributed children’s art (Salem Reporter)

A lot of the people we met said they wanted to know more about the tax. Based on your questions, we’re preparing a Q&A to publish later this week before the council takes up the issue. We’ll also include information about how to let city leaders hear your thoughts. 

If you already know what you’d like to say, you can email written comments to [email protected] before 5 p.m. on Monday, July 10 or on paper to the city recorder’s office at the Civic Center, 555 Liberty St. S.E., Room 225. Include a statement indicating the comment is for the public record.

Meanwhile, here’s some of my previous reporting on the issue:

Here’s a story with an overview about how much it will cost, and what it will fund.

Here’s a deeper look at the proposed police department spending, which is nearly half of the proposed tax, and current vacancies.

Here’s a look into the fire department spending:

And another on the impact it could have on Navigation Center and micro shelters:

And some reactions from business leaders in the region:

And you can listen into me on OPB talking about it.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.