City News

READER SURVEY: Most Salemites willing to pay more taxes, want cuts to vacant city jobs

Over half of Salemites in an informal poll by Salem Reporter said they’re willing to pay more in taxes or fees to support city services as Salem faces a budget crisis.

The survey garnered about 430 responses from city residents and workers, who also said they’re most concerned about proposed city cuts to police and fire.

The poll was posted on Salem Reporter’s website, newsletter and social media, is informal and did not include controls for Salem’s population and was not a random population distribution.

A majority of those who responded favored increasing public support for city services, with about 56% people supporting a tax increase through a levy or raising property taxes, the city’s proposed payroll tax or another increase to the operations fee charged on monthly utility bills. But just 29% said they’d support the payroll tax heading to voters in November.

About one in five suggested another form of tax or revenue, either in addition to or instead of those options. Many wrote they’d favor a tax on businesses, or a change to a payroll tax to make it more progressive by taxing wealthier earners more or having employers pay a portion.

Cutting vacancies was another popular option, with nearly half of respondents saying they would remove unfilled city positions from the budget, 35% wanting to remove vacancies at the police department and 24% wanting to cut fire department vacancies.

Without increased revenue, the city said that deep cuts are inevitable. Salemites in the informal poll said they were most concerned about cuts to the police department, homeless shelters and fire department.

Most respondents, 92%, said they lived in Salem. 

Nearly 60% worked in Salem, 10% worked outside Salem and 31% said they don’t work. A third of responders were parents or guardians raising children in Salem.

Concern for cuts

City leaders have proposed a series of cuts over five years, if the payroll tax were to fail at the November ballot box.

City costs are outpacing revenue, city leadership has said, due to the limit on how much property tax revenue the city can collect. Chief Financial Officer Josh Eggleston said that with around 80% of costs going to staffing, whose wages are determined by the state and collective bargaining, “the only thing that we can control is the number of staff.”

The city’s 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 more about them here:

The survey’s first question asked readers to choose which three proposed cuts concerned them the most. 

The top concern, selected by about half of respondents, were the proposed cuts to the police department’s drug enforcement unit, graffiti abatement team and a reduction of 10 officer positions in 2025. Police Chief Trevor Womack said the department would transfer existing those now working in task forces.

The second biggest concern, with 211 votes, was the city pulling its support for sheltering and homeless services, including micro shelter villages run by Church at the Park, which would cost the city $5.4 million next year. Catholic Community Services uses the micro shelters to provide up to 132 beds for children and families, and Village of Hope provides 80 adult beds. The city also said it would pull support from the newly-built Navigation Center, which provides 75 beds.

The third biggest concern for respondents was fewer firefighters on duty per shift, which 43% of respondents listed in their top three. The cuts would reduce the number from 43 to 40, which could increase 911 response times.

The closure of two fire stations starting in 2025, the closure of the West Salem Branch of the Salem Public Library and reductions at the main branch and reduced maintenance at city parks drew the concern of about  a third of respondents.

Twenty-nine respondents, less than 7%, said they support all the cuts.

Nearly 50 people provided additional comments about their concerns.

“These are all terrible. We have to find a way to raise revenue,” one said, along with several others who said they didn’t want to see any cuts.

Others said they didn’t feel like city officials had considered enough alternatives, and wanted an audit of city spending.

Balancing the budget

Readers were asked which steps they support to balance the city budget, with the option to select several.

Nearly half of respondents said they wanted to remove funding for vacant jobs in city departments other than police and fire services making it the most popular option.

A third said they wanted to see funding removed for vacant jobs at the Salem Police Department, and 24% said they’d remove vacant fire positions. Each department has around 20 vacancies that are funded as year-round jobs. They attribute the vacancies to recruitment challenges and retirements.

About 1 out of 4 respondents said they’d cut city funding to homeless services.

To cover city spending needs, the payroll tax the most favored option, with 126 respondents saying they wanted to see it approved.

Just over a third of respondents said they wanted to see a voter-approved increase in property taxes for city services to bring in more revenue, and 28% said they wanted to see further increases to the city’s operations fee which is found on monthly utility bills. In June, the Salem City Council approved an increase of between $4.40 and $5.50 a month per household in that fee. 

Forty-five people submitted comments about the budgeting.

Several said they wanted to see the payroll tax altered to split the burden between employees and workers, or to have higher earners pay more. Some suggested raising the operations fee for commercial properties, or seeking compensation from the state for its property in Salem.

Previous coverage: 

NOTE: Seats are still available for the Town Hall on Taxes on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 6 p.m. Free tickets are here. Salem Reporter is hosting the event at the Elsinore Theatre.

Public forum on city’s payroll tax and spending issues

Open to all

6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11

Elsinore Theatre

Free tickets HERE

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the poll method.

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.