City News

‘A smorgasbord of awful:’ council begins discussions of budget cuts

Salem city councilors on Monday, Sept. 18, began discussing which city services to cut to address a budget crisis fast approaching a cliff. 

The discussion came after a presentation from city leaders, which outlined proposed cuts to libraries, parks and citywide services should Salemites vote against a payroll tax in the November election. 

Councilors made it clear that they did not relish the cuts. Several asked city staff to make adjustments and additional projections for other options, including cutting more vacant jobs, funding homeless shelters or further delaying cuts to police and fire.

“I think this is a smorgasbord of awful,” said Councilor Trevor Phillips, echoing a sentiment expressed by other councilors. Mayor Chris Hoy on Tuesday called the meeting “a bummer.”

The cuts, which are outlined over the next five years, were drafted with a “first team mentality,” said City Manager Keith Stahley during the meeting. That means department leaders put city interests ahead of the interests of their own departments when making recommendations, he said.

Proposed cuts include the closure of the West Salem branch of the public library, along with reduced hours and likely layoffs at the main branch. They also include an end to the city funding homeless shelters, cuts to police and fire positions and reduced upkeep at city parks.

Read Salem Reporter’s summary of the proposals and interview with Stahley here.

“The cuts that we propose are strategic, they’re not across the board cuts. I didn’t come in and say ‘Alright, everybody give me a 10% reduction.’ We literally went through our budget on a line-by-line, program by program basis,” Stahley said. 

If the city were to not make any cuts and or pin down new revenue, which Stahley said is not an option, it would have a $10.9 million budget shortfall in the next year, which would grow to $63.5 million in five years.

Stahley also asked the council to prepare to initiate a revenue task force in November, which would be made up of appointed members. The city’s last revenue task force, in 2017, recommended the payroll tax that formed the basis of the revenue plan this year.

“Unfortunately progress isn’t always linear and our path forward isn’t always clear. That’s the nature of the work that we do. Sometimes it’s hard, and often the impacts of your decisions aren’t always clear,” Stahley said in his opening remarks. “I hope that you’ll all have patience in this process, that you’ll grant yourself, staff, each other and the community grace as we do this work over the coming months. We have to recognize that all truly are doing the best we can.”

Chief Financial Officer Josh Eggleston presented the proposed cuts to councilors on Monday, who asked questions and shared their priorities and requests for additional budget projections. The council plans to hold an additional meeting on the subject before the November election, with additional presentations to explore suggested alternatives.

Eggleston said later in the meeting that he hoped the council would discuss the options and come back with alternatives or guidance for new proposals. With an outlined proposal in front of them as a starting point, “now you have something to react to,” he said.

City costs are outpacing revenue, Eggleston said, due to the limit on how much property tax revenue the city can collect.

“Generally, 80% of our costs are people,” he said, and the cost of an employee is largely determined by the state and collective bargaining agreements. “The only thing that we can control is the number of staff.”

In 2027, over 10,000 Salemites would not see emergency response within five and a half minutes of calling 911 if the proposed cuts are implemented, Fire Chief Mike Niblock said during the meeting.

Starting in July 2024, the proposed cuts would reduce the number of firefighters on duty per shift from 43 to 40 and increase the call volume load for other stations. The city proposed closing a fire station in 2025 and another in 2027. It also would not build the two fire stations funded by the infrastructure bond voters passed in November.

The police department would see cuts to its drug enforcement unit, graffiti abatement team, and a reduction of 10 officer positions in 2025. Police Chief Trevor Womack said the department would relocate existing staff from task forces.

“You’re becoming more of a responsive agency rather than a proactive agency,” Womack said about the impact of the cuts. “But the farther we go you’re going to continue going down those layers until there’s really nothing left but patrol officers, traffic officers and detectives for serious crimes.”

Proposed cuts would also limit maintenance at parks and reduce services at Center 50+, which runs senior services in the community, and collaborates with community partners. The city proposed reclaiming a portion of the lost funding through increasing fees.

Phillips said he doesn’t agree with any of the cuts, but that they have to plan for the possibility of implementing them.

“This could cost us lives, and it will cause harm,” he said. “So none of these cuts are I think suggested from our manager or the leadership team lightly.”

The city proposed to withdraw money from the Navigation Center, micro shelters, emergency warming shelters and Safe Park in 2024 and 2025, after federal Covid money runs out.

The cumulative proposed reductions to departmental budgets for the 2027 fiscal year, as presented by Eggleston during a Monday, Sept. 18 City Council meeting. The figures represent the percentage of general fund cuts per category, meaning 18% of the total community services budget would be cut by 2027 (Courtesy/ City of Salem)

Councilor Virginia Stapleton, ward 1, is leading the campaign to promote a ‘yes’ vote on the payroll tax. She asked if the city and councilors would consider reframing their thinking to prioritize sheltering services, and if the city could explore that budget option.

“If we had a chance to just totally redo what we thought was possible for a city to provide, or what we thought was morally or ethically, or our values moving forward – I wonder what that would look like,” she said. “I would say that that crisis in our community impacts every other thing that we do. It impacts the library, it impacts police and fire and (emergency medical services) and our community livability, and our downtown businesses, and economic development, and people moving to our city, and tourism and all these different areas.”

Stahley called it a $10 to $11 million dollar question, which would close the library, and seriously impact parks, with further cuts to fire and police. He said the city does not have enough revenue in the system to support the services.

“We took the approach that responding to homelessness is not a core function of municipal government, that is a function of the state, county, and then the city is the entity of last resort,” he said. “My heart says ‘Yeah we should do that,’ but the reality of looking at this says there’s no way to do that.”

Councilor Vanessa Nordyke, ward 7, said she wants to eliminate vacancies, especially those over 6 months old, before making any layoffs. The police and fire department have around 20 vacancies each.

“I would rather eliminate vacancies than eliminate people who have chosen public service with the city as their career,” Nordyke said.

Stahley said he would return to the next meeting with an assessment about vacancies, and recruitment plans at the police department. He added that hiring freezes aren’t a long term solution to the structural budget issue.

Mayor Chris Hoy said he is “looking under every rock” for additional revenue opportunities, including continual asks to the state legislature for support for the costs of service for the capital.

“I’m not willing to live with any of these, can’t accept any of these cuts,” Hoy said. He said he remembers what downtown Salem used to look like before the city had a homelessness response and services. “I am not willing to go back there. Any scenario that cuts those services, we are already in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. People are going to die. And our city is going to be a very different place than it is today, and not in a good way.”

The city council is planning to hold another work session in October, where it will see additional projections based on the discussion and council questions.

West Salem library

Inside the West Salem Branch of the Salem Public Library on Sept. 19, 2023 (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

One of the early proposed cuts is the closure of the West Salem Branch of the Public Library, which is open 5 days a week for five hours a day.

Tuesday afternoon, around 10 patrons read in chairs, made use of the computers and studied at the tables. 

Councilor Micki Varney, whose ward includes the branch, brought a printed out fact sheet and timeline about the library to her meeting with Salem Reporter. West Salem first got a library branch in 1955, and moved into its newly built space in 1995. Since then, its hours have been cut from 40 per week to 25.

Still, Varney said it’s a resource important to many in her ward. It saw over 24,000 visitors last year, and over 6,000 checkouts, according to Varney’s printouts.

Varney said during her last visit on Saturday morning, all the computers were full, all the outlets for charging phones were in use and children were enjoying the space. She said she approached someone using their laptop, and learned that she walked there every day to use the wi-fi. On the day the library is closed, she sits outside to access it.

Varney wants to see more programs at the branch, not fewer. She says she understands why it was included in the proposed cuts.

“It’s a challenge. I’m very, very supportive of our police and fire and our critical services, but I also see the library as a critical service in the sense that what it provides the community – especially folks who don’t have access otherwise… it provides a really valuable service as well as people getting together to learn about other services,” she said.

“I would not like to see it closed, at all,” she said, and hopes to explore options to keep it open at least a day a week.

She said that comparatively, the library doesn’t cost much of the general fund. The west Salem Branch cut would save $700,000 a year. 

“They don’t take a very large piece of our general fund. It’s almost like chipping away at the little things,” she said. “But I’d be really sad to see it go, because of the service provides.”

Varney said she sees the payroll tax as a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound, and she wants to look outside the box more when it comes to revenue and service operations that spread the burden beyond wage-earners.

“I knew it was going to be really tough, and not popular. Who wants to pay taxes? But my responsibility as a councilor, also, is to make sure people have the services that they expect to receive,” she said. 

Correction: Marion Polk Food Share runs Meals on Wheels out of the Center 50+ building. Center 50+ does not operate the service itself. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

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.