City News

Salem payroll tax expected to make November ballot as Marion County begins verifying signatures

Marion County election workers are verifying thousands of signatures from voters who want Salemites to have a say on a new city payroll tax, with both city and county officials saying they expect the measure to make the November ballot.

The group collecting signatures to put Salem’s payroll tax to voters said that, as of noon Wednesday, they have submitted a total of 12,909 to the city for processing — more than triple the 3,986 required.

If just 31% of the submitted signatures are valid, the matter will go on the November ballot, county officials said. Though signatures haven’t been verified yet, they said it’s the likely outcome. 

On July 10, a 5-4 vote from the Salem City Council narrowly approved a tax on wages earned within Salem. The tax is intended to help close a city budget shortfall and would pay for additional police and firefighters, as well as funding operations for several homeless shelters after federal money for the programs runs out.

With the new ordinance, workers would pay 0.814% of wages, about $42 per month for a Salem worker earning the city’s average wage of $29.90 an hour. Minimum wage earners are exempt. A June 12 report from the city estimated the tax would bring in $27.9 million per year.

Oregon Business & Industry filed a petition to refer the tax to the ballot on July 14, a few days after the council vote. The Salem-based advocacy group represents 1,600 businesses across Oregon and has funded much of the campaign.

To make the November ballot, the petition requires that 3,986 verified signatures are submitted by Aug 9.

The county elections office began counting Wednesday morning, and elections manager Brian Van Bergen said they expect to finish by Friday, though they have until Aug. 16 if needed.

Typically, county election officials said they recommend petitioners get 10 to 15% more signatures than required.

“In this case, they brought us 150% more than we need,” Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said Monday, before additional ballots came in on Wednesday. “In our minds, there’s not much doubt that there’ll be enough good signatures.”

“They’re gonna meet that number,” City Manager Keith Stahley said in an interview with Salem Reporter Tuesday.

Mayor Chris Hoy said Wednesday that he and the other city councilors have been waiting to see how the petition would pan out before making plans to prepare for the November election. 

By state law, city employees cannot campaign on ballot measures, so any campaign in favor of the tax would have to be led by councilors who supported the measure or citizens advocating for it.

The council could opt to change course and pull the tax before it goes to voters. Hoy said the council hasn’t yet discussed doing so.

The petition organizers first submitted 10,000 signatures to the city on Aug. 2 and 3. The city recorder checked to make sure the forms were filled out correctly and are in order before sending them to the county.

Before the county checks the signatures, it identifies and checks the credentials of the person who circulated the petition.

“So if you’re standing outside the Costco and you’re signing a petition, that person that is holding the clipboard, they are supposed to witness each of those signatures and that person is supposed to write their information on the bottom,” Van Bergen said.

The county had about 2,500 different pages with signatures as of Monday, Burgess said, from many different circulators.

After confirming the validity of the circulators, the next step is to verify the signatures on them. This is made more difficult by the closeness of the petition lines, which mean many signatures overlap over the top of each other.

Signatures are verified through the state’s centralized election management software which has signatures on file. Unlike during an election, a rejected signature won’t be followed up on or contestable, which is a policy based on federal standards, Burgess said. 

Those who signed must also be registered voters in the city of Salem. 

There was previously some confusion about the timeline for the petition getting on the ballot, and whether it would go to the November or May election based on the time it took for the county to process it. Burgess confirmed that since the valid signatures were submitted by Aug. 9, the issue would go to the November election.

The clarification came after discussions with the Secretary of State’s office, the county’s attorneys and the city clerk, Burgess said.

“Our determination was that the November election is the only election that this will qualify for because they got the petitions in 90 days before the election,” and state law specifies it should go to the next ballot, he said. 

The city will pay the estimated cost to run the election. That would be around $220,000 according to a July staff report from the city.

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.