LIVE BLOG: Follow the Town Hall on city payroll tax

This is your live blog for Salem Reporter’s Town Hall on Taxes, which will help voters decide where they stand on a proposed city income tax for wage-earning and self-employed Salem workers. 


A ballot measure in November will decide whether the city of Salem will impose a new tax on people earning above minimum wage for their work performed within city limits.

Intended to overcome a city budget shortfall, the new tax would pay for additional police and firefighters, city officials said. Councilors in favor say the tax would prevent impactful cuts to community services, including several homeless shelters that now rely on limited federal money.

Ballots are scheduled to go out on Wednesday, Oct. 18, to registered voters inside Salem city limits. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The Town Hall is being held on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at the Elsinore Theatre in downtown Salem.

6:15 p.m. – Salem City Council president Virginia Stapleton is leading the pro-tax campaign Save Salem.

Stapleton said the passing of Measure 5 in 1990 resulted in Salem property taxes being capped at $10 per 100,000 of assessed value. Seven years later, Measure 50 created a permanent tax rate. “These rates have been frozen in time ever since the 1997,” she said.

Stapleton said the cost of running the city is outpacing its revenue from property taxes. Salem officials have been slowly cutting services for over two decades and have had to “get creative” to find ways to boost revenue, she said.

That includes the city’s operations fee, which went to utility bills on July 1 and goes to emergency services, libraries, parks and other services. “But we can no longer continue to make cuts,” she said.

If the payroll tax fails, the city’s proposed budget cuts include closing the west Salem library, reducing hours and days at the main Salem Public Library, Stapleton said.

She also said the city would need to cut seven positions at the Salem Fire Department, five positions from the Salem Police Department, 13 positions across support services such as the city’s Human Resources, Information Technology and Legal departments, and seven positions from parks and maintenance crews.

“Salem is a wonderful town and it has amazing potential. The one glaring issue is the city’s general fund,” she said. “The payroll tax will stabilize that general fund and provide the city the ability to keep investing in our community and meeting the needs of our residents.”

(Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

6:30 p.m. – Oregon Business and Industry led the campaign to get the vote put on the ballot.

OBI Political Affairs Director Preston Mann said his organizations sees dozens of tax measures come through the state Legislature. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a tax as complicated and convoluted as this one,” he said.

Mann said he finds the proposed tax troubling because most residents are not clear on when they enter or exit city limits.

He said as much as the city budget might be in a crisis, family budgets are as well. “I think we can’t forget that in this conversation. People are having a very difficult time paying the bills right now, and 500 to $1,000 per family, that’s a lot of money. And frankly, I don’t think people can afford that,” he said.

Mann said he rejects any implication that those opposing the tax don’t support homeless services, police or firefighters.

“Many of the 13,000 people that signed this petition, we simply disagree with this particular tax increase. This particular approach is complicated and cost too much and there has to be a better way,” he said.

(Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

6:35 p.m. – Stapleton and Mann take questions from Salem Reporter journalists

Stapleton said if the tax is not approved in November, she would be concerned about Salem police’s ability to respond to rising violent incidents and fentanyl use in the community.

Mann said he does not believe the tax would necessarily solve rising crime. “There are other options for raising revenue, there are other options for balancing the budget and I think it’s foolish to suggest that passing this tax increase is going to solve the very real community safety issues we’re facing.”

Stapleton said the city has been seeking to spare residents as much as possible when making budget cuts. If the measure fails, she said the city would have to cut services within the next calendar year to “spread out and spare the most painful cuts until hopefully we can find another revenue option.”

People will start to feel it if the measure fails, and that is good governance. That is us taking our jobs as city councilors very seriously and making sure that we are protecting the core services as the city as much as we possibly can,” she said.

Salem’s Outreach and Livability Services team is one city service that could be on the chopping block if the measure fails.

Mann said he has family members who are deeply impacted by Oregon’s homelessness crisis. “That’s really personal to me,” he said.

“Our governor who said she’s likely to vote no on this tax, you would be hard pressed to find somebody in this state who cares more about the people living on our streets and finding them permanent housing,” he said. “Let’s have a conversation with the governor about trying to fix this crisis. I don’t think she wants to see the city of Salem take a step back when it comes to serving your home.”

Stapleton said the city has been asking for help from the state in lieu of taxes for a long time. “We have not had any action at the state level, so when people say we need to start having conversations, I want to push back hard on that. These conversations have been ongoing for years for decades,” she said.

“I look forward to hearing what the governor wants to do to help alleviate the strain here in the city of Salem,” she said. “We have not had any help in over 20 years.”

Stapleton said there are consequences to the November vote. “Is it the end of the world? No, of course not,” she said. “But I I really get frustrated when it feels like they’re saying that we are painting this as an either-or because we are talking about cuts. The cuts are simply a reality for me. I’m not trying to be a fear monger or stoke fear among people, I am simply here to do good governance and do what needs to be done and I’m ready to do those things.”

(Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

7 p.m. – Stapleton and Mann take questions from the audience

Mann said the fact that there is no rate limit on the proposed payroll tax “should concern everybody.”

Stapleton said she often struggles with how to help local businesses with the many challenges they face.

“I am hopeful that through the process of getting to where we’re going to get to implementation, that those questions are answered and we can find ways to address the different issues that different business owners have,” she said.

Mann said he believes the payroll tax was a sincere effort to protect some minimum wage workers.

“I can appreciate that, but also think back to my high school days when I was a pizza delivery driver in this town, I got a 10 cent raise over minimum wage,” he said. “Under this tax, if it would cost me less to just stay at minimum wage, I think that’s a fundamentally unfair.”

Stapleton said that while she was honored that Salem residents were willing to invest in the community by approving a $300 million infrastructure package last fall, one reason that bond succeeded was that it didn’t result in higher taxes.

Stapleton also said she’s heard from many who believed that by initially voting on the tax without putting it on the ballot, the city council did not trust citizens to decide the future of the payroll tax on their own.

She said if it hadn’t gone to the ballot, the council would have put the issue before voters within seven years after the tax was approved. The plan, she said, was to maintain services without making cuts and while educating the public about the matter. 

She said it would take about two years for the city to implement the tax and collect revenue. Councilors wanted to seek public approval after they had results to show from the tax revenue, she said.

“I wanted to keep the momentum going as much as we could. I wanted to use the time for rulemaking and education as much as I could,” she said. “We would then be able to prove to them that we did need this money, and that the money would be spent in the way we said it would be spent. And that in the end, they would vote to continue the tax and I would’ve earned that vote.”


Citizens on budget committee worry about payroll tax, cut impacts

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

Salem payroll tax heading to November ballot

Salem councilors explain their votes for and against the payroll tax

Salem councilors vote to tax worker paychecks after citizens overwhelmingly ask them not to

Answers to your questions about Salem’s proposed tax on worker paychecks

This story was updated to reflect Preston Mann’s correct title and to clarify the city of Salem’s original plan if the tax was not put on the ballot. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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.