City News

Salem City Council to discuss alternative cuts

The Salem City Council is returning to the discussion table on Wednesday to consider alternative routes to address its budget deficit, if voters don’t approve a payroll tax on Nov. 7.

Following a city cut proposal described as a “smorgasbord of awful,” councilors during a Sept. 18 meeting asked for the potential for a variety of adjustments, such as adding furlough days, cutting vacancies, retaining public safety service levels or continuing to fund homeless shelters.

In a Wednesday, Oct. 25, meeting, they’ll review the city’s evaluation of trade-offs those asks would bring, which range from additional fees on parks to totally shutting down the Salem library to preserve police and firefighter jobs. 

The meeting follows up on councilor questions during the September meeting. If the city were to not make any cuts and or pin down new revenue, which City Manager Keith 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. The city is required by state law to have a balanced budget.

The work session starts at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the Council Chambers, 555 Liberty St. S.E., room 220. This meeting does not include a public comment portion, but can still be attended in person or online on CC:Media’s YouTube Channel in English or translated to Spanish.

Written public comments can be submitted to [email protected] by 5 p.m. the day of the meeting 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.

Cutting vacancies

Vacant jobs at the city have been a focus of budget discussions, with councilors asking in September if the city could begin making cuts to positions that have sat unfilled.

City staff provided a list of its 80 currently vacant positions funded by the general fund, 35 of them being positions vacant for over six months. 

Ten out of 26 police department vacancies and 12 of 16 fire department vacancies have been unfilled for at least six months, according to the city’s list. 

Other vacant positions citywide include custodians, analysts, managers and library assistants.

Police Chief Trevor Womack and Fire Chief Mike Niblock addressed the vacancies and their perspectives on potential reductions in memos to the city. 

In his memo, Womack said that the police department’s vacancy rate of 10% is double what’s considered tolerable. He said it is temporary and “driven by increased attrition and decreased career interest.”

Womack said the hiring process takes 3-5 months.

“Cutting vacant positions or implementing “hiring freezes” interrupts this lengthy process and slows the system,” he said. He said that eliminating vacant positions would lead to increased workload on existing staff.

Niblock, whose department has a 9% vacancy rate, echoed similar sentiments in his memo. He pointed to the impact of Covid, retirements and promotions in the ranks.

He said hiring for a firefighter/paramedic takes 3-4 months, and requires scenario-based testing, background investigations and mandatory assessments. 

“Reducing vacancies or imposing hiring freezes can create a domino effect, affecting the department’s overall functionality, response capabilities, and long-term recruitment efforts,” Niblock said. 

Furloughs and comparisons to other cities

The city provided an overview of the potential to implement furloughs, which would be unpaid leave for employees to reduce expenses.

A single furlough day for all General Fund employees would bring around $366,255 in savings, or $166,585 for a furlough excluding public safety employees.

The city said furloughs in police and fire would not be feasible due to safety concerns with understaffing. Furloughs would also require negotiation with staff unions, and bargaining agreements with general staff and the police union are up for re-negotiation in June.

“It is anticipated that any negotiations regarding furloughs will most likely be an undesirable topic and not easily agreed upon as an alternative solution to the City’s budget crisis,” the staff report said.

For the 23% of the workforce who aren’t unionized, staff listed concerns about existing issues with employee morale, work-life balance and a lack of interest in promotional opportunities.

Councilors will also review an updated look from consulting firm Moss Adams at how other Oregon cities have begun to address revenue challenges, including local option levies, Eugene’s payroll tax and cuts to services. Eugene made $18.6 million in service reductions, including $6.6 million from its library and cultural services and $3.7 million from police, according to the report

Councilors will see four potential reduction scenarios, which include the original cuts proposed by the city in September and three alternative adjustments. One would add park rangers and expand the police department’s homeless services team. Another would keep all public safety services as-is while closing the library and Center 50+. One option would keep homeless shelters open with the same cuts.

Councilors will discuss those options in Wednesday’s meeting. The options are potential scenarios that the council will use to further discuss budget cuts and funding priorities. 

READ IT: City reduction scenarios

Scenario one: what councilors reviewed in September

Serving as the starting point for the other reduction scenarios, the city’s previous proposal includes cuts to libraries, parks and citywide services should Salemites vote against a payroll tax in the November election.

It includes 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 proposed cuts here.

Other proposed options modify this first proposal, and assume no additional revenue or changes to spending such as furlough days.

Scenario two: Add park rangers and expand the Salem Outreach and Livability Services team

The city projected a scenario where they expand the police’s homeless service team, park rangers and Salem Outreach and Livability Services team, at the expense of eliminating the city’s homeless rental assistance program and adding fee increases to recreation and planning permits.

The change would mean the city keeps this year’s budget items that added two positions to the Police’s Homelessness Services Team, two park rangers and four members of the Salem Outreach and Livability Services team. The positions interact directly with people who are unsheltered in Salem’s streets and parks, including referrals to services and removing garbage.

If the payroll tax fails and without other additional revenue, the would eliminate its Homeless Rental Assistance Program through the Salem Housing Authority, which costs $625,000.

The move would cut the outreach team which helps people connect with Social Security income, use the Oregon Health Plan, and members that do outreach in the community such as leading the Point in Time Count.

“Without this vital funding, our Outreach Navigators would have to be reassigned to other duties within the Housing Authority and would have to focus their talents and expertise elsewhere, and our community would lose this vital resource,” Chief Financial Officer Josh Eggleston said in the staff report.

The city said it would also increase land use and application permit fees to add $200,000 in revenue. Under state law, the city can’t make the fees cost more than the actual or average cost of processing applications, but the city’s current rates haven’t reached that point yet, Eggleston said.

The proposed fee increase would be spread throughout all land use application and permit types.

The city also proposed $200,000 in fee increases and service decreases in parks programs.

Scenario three: No cuts to police or fire, close the library

The third option would maintain 43 police and fire positions by closing the library and Center 50+ entirely, as well as cutting more administrative, court, and parks positions. This option also includes the reductions and fee increases from the second option.

The library closure would cut $3.9 million and would mean Salem residents wouldn’t have access to its 350,000 collection items or library facilities starting in the next fiscal year. The library’s services include access to the Internet, study rooms, Loucks Auditorium and programs for teens, literacy education and homebound community members.

The library has 35 full-time employees, 3 part-time, 15 on-call, six high school and college interns and 155 volunteers.

In the 2026 fiscal year, the city would close Center 50+, which provides services to Salem seniors. The service costs $1.2 million and connects thousands of community members with programs for health, wellness, socializing and access to technology, housing and social services.

Center 50+ works to organize 45 different businesses and agencies in the city, and its closure would displace Marion Polk Food Share’s Meals On Wheels program, the Northwest Senior and Disability Services’ office and contractors providing services and education.

In the 2027 fiscal year, the city would begin eliminating positions from finance, IT, Human Resources and legal departments, and at the municipal court.

The city would eliminate five parks operations positions in the 2028 fiscal year, which would close restrooms at all community and urban parks, reduce maintenance and stop irrigation at most parks and eliminate tree planting and maintenance in parks.

Scenario four: Funding all sheltering services

To continually fund the Navigation Center and micro shelters, which provide beds and access to resources for hundreds of unsheltered people in the community, the city would implement the same cuts from option three.

If the payroll tax fails, the city is otherwise planning to pull its support from the services.

Starting in July 2024, the city would pull its support from micro shelter villages run by Church at the Park, which cost the city $5.4 million. Catholic Community Services micro shelters provide up to 132 beds for children and families, and Village of Hope provides 80 adult beds. 

The services help people transition out of homelessness, and guests used emergency services less with an 80% reduction to emergency room visits and a 75% reduction in 911 calls, according to Eggleston’s report.

Starting July 1, 2025, the city would pull its funding for the newly built Navigation Center, which was opened and started operating using Covid funds. The center provides shelter and connections to healthcare, employment and housing resources for up to 75 people.

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.