Eight in 10 Salem residents who cast a ballot Tuesday said no to a city wage tax intended to close Salem’s expected budget deficit.
Salem Reporter invited readers to share what message they hoped to send the city with their vote, and what they wanted city leaders to do next to address Salem’s budget challenges.
While the ballot offered only a “yes” or “no” option, readers who shared their thoughts with Salem Reporter had more nuanced views. Many who rejected the tax said they saw the need for additional revenue, but felt the tax was too difficult to administer or unfair because it only taxed working people.
Several readers who voted for the tax said they did so reluctantly, raising similar concerns to the “no” voters.
Here’s a sampling of what people said about their votes and where Salem should head next, grouped by themes. Comments are lightly edited for style and length.
“No” voters who want to pay more for services
“I don’t think anyone who voted “no” on this issue denies that the services are greatly needed and doesn’t greatly appreciate those who work in those areas. But the manner in which they chose to cover the expenses just didn’t make sense. As someone who is no longer employed, I didn’t think it was fair that the burden was placed on only those who are employed. We all benefit from the services, and spreading it to all would result in less of a pinch.
The amount they would have been charged may not seem a lot to some folks, but I remember very well the days when just a few dollars less made a huge difference.
I hope the City Council will find a more equitable way to fund these very necessary services.”
“I voted No on the payroll tax because it didn’t tax me!
As a senior, I may use and depend on city services more than others. But because my income is all pensions and investments I would pay nothing.
People commuting to higher paying Portland jobs would pay nothing.
Members of my family working full time but with incomes below the poverty level WOULD pay.
This baloney tax was selected for ease of administration with no thought for anything else.
I understand the shortfall and the need for more revenue. I support gathering that revenue. But until the gathering of that revenue is in some progressive form and taxes me, I will not support it.”
“I *wanted* to vote yes to save the library, Center 50+, the homeless support, etc., but I just couldn’t vote for it without major changes (especially tiered percentages based on wage levels, the ability for folks like Amazon drivers to just pay a simple flat fee instead of having to possibly track mileage/hours, and so on).
I’d love to see two new ballot measures, both of them fixing the transparency issues and tackling the issue of needing a sliding scale based on income brackets. Make one proposal be for supporting everything in the general fund that isn’t police, and the second one just for police $$s. I personally think the first might pass, and the second would go down in flames, even if none of the other problems were fixed with the proposed tax — that shiny new police station hasn’t been forgotten.”
“I don’t support tax increases foolishly. However when I’m made aware that our 1st responders (police, fire, etc.) will be negatively impacted without additional funding that is wrong. The added dollars that would have gone towards providing services for the homeless in our city, seemed to me was minimal.
Both of these “real services and issues” affect every one of us.
We (residents, employees and employers) want our streets, parks and shopping areas free of “those who have nowhere to go.” We want our 1st responders to answer immediately our calls for help. This takes financial investments (taxes). See how loud the cries become when these services aren’t able to respond as quickly.
I believe we (the vast majority of residents) share priorities but our hearts need to be moved toward more compassion against our brain telling us to selfishly hold onto every $$$.
Too often we have to learn the hard way that anyone of us could find ourselves in need of our 1st responders or in need of housing/ medical or food assistance.”
“I voted yes for the tax and was disappointed if not surprised that it didn’t pass. I was especially disheartened though by the margin. While I understand some folks who voted no were coming from a genuine concern about the impact of the tax on lower income residents, overall it felt like much of the energy from the opposition was grounded in bigotry and lack of compassion toward our most vulnerable neighbors: Salem’s houseless residents. While the tax would have also provided funding for other essential public services like fire and police, I believe the tax failed because it would also have gone to provide services to the unhoused. I am so, so sad that our community didn’t take this opportunity to step up and be part of a collective solution to help our neighbors experiencing a form of crisis. That said, since the tax didn’t pass, my mind is now turning to other ways to help ensure continuity and hopefully even expansion of services to ensure everyone has access to what should be a basic right – a safe place to sleep at night and being treated with dignity and compassion. I’d love to hear more about the organizations in our community and ways that ordinary people like me can plug in and help.”
“I was a city councilor in early 2000s and we were cutting programs and foreseeing the effects of property tax measures 5 and 50 then. As we forecasted out, the outlook only got bleaker.
One idea I would like to see explored is a Salem business license registration fee/tax. Business was a major opponent of this measure but the business supported councilors never offered a solution other than cut programs. Many Salem businesses have benefited for years from property tax exemptions, tax deferrals, system development charges that don’t cover the costs that come with development. They have benefitted support for the city greatly under the cost them. They have benefited from low water rates that don’t cover the costs their businesses are having on services they receive. Yet they continue to want lower rates and more support from the city.
As an individual, I’m willing to pay more taxes for bringing back the quality services the city once offered. A thriving Parks and Rec program, staff support to neighborhood associations, to name a couple and services that address the homeless crisis in ways that are humanitary and work. We once had city planners who offered creative planning ideas not cookie cutter, pro-developer thinking.
At one time the City of Salem had creative and energetic employees and city councilors. But the revenue crisis Salem and all Oregon cities are experiencing due to the property tax limits has strangeled that energy and forced it into a “what should we cut” rather than a “how can we improve and get better” mentality.
To use the ever popular “run it like a business” mantra, if all you are doing is cutting budgets you are not growing, improving or satisfying your customers, you are a dying entity.
Salem needs a new source or sources of revenue to meet its basic needs and to improve. It’s time for the business community to stop saying “no” and help support a solution where they contribute their fair share, as well as individuals like me making similar contributions.”
Tax complexity and equitability
“I voted against the tax because it is inequitable and overly complicated. It’s inequitable because it targets those who work and ignores those who receive the bulk of their income from sources other than wages, such as retirees and business owners. It also excludes businesses. While certainly some retirees live on a fixed income, many do not. It doesn’t seem at all fair that upper middle class retirees and business owners would pay nothing while struggling low income families would have all of their wages taxed. Also, because the tax was so focused and excluded so many Salem residents, the rate had to be higher than if a broader base had been chosen. While it might have been conceived back in 2018 as a way to tax those who work in Salem but don’t live here, the world is a very different place since the pandemic. Many people who work for Salem based companies or government entities, including many state workers, now rarely come into Salem for work.
If the only answer to numerous questions about the administration of the tax is that it will be resolved during rule making, then officials have already broken one of the tenants of good tax policy, simplicity.
While I commend Councilor Stapleton for her attempt to explain compression during the town hall, the city has not provided any actual data on how many properties would be in full or partial compression if a local option levy property tax was used instead of a payroll tax, what rate would be necessary to raise the same revenue, and what the average property tax increase would be. Also, no data was provided on how many Salem households would have paid or not paid the payroll tax although we know the number of businesses paying it would be zero.
I think the idea of convening a new revenue group is a good one. Hopefully the city will make use of our unique position as the state capital and find at least one individual with tax policy expertise to serve on the committee.”
“I was swayed by comments on the difficulty of implementing the tax especially on remote workers and that those employed in Salem but live outside city limits could not vote on the measure (no taxation without representation). I was influenced by Governor Kotek’s position that she would likely vote against the tax. As a temporary Salem resident, what are her thoughts to address the city’s shortfall? I know from the debate, it was mentioned that the city has unsuccessfully tried to get funding from the state for decades. Since there is so much state property and state agencies, why can’t the city sue the state for their share of property tax to fund city services. Revenue can only be accessed either through tax or bond measures. Asking voters to increase their tax burden during a time of high costs in food, fuel, housing could only lead to defeat. I love the Salem library and Bush/Minto Parks (I live in SE Salem). Bush Park does its share to support the homeless as I have picked up human excrement on occasion using my doggie poop bag. Law & Order/Safety must be funded. With the unhoused being a national problem, funding should be the responsibility of the county/state.”
“I voted against the tax because people who were affected were not able to vote (lived outside the city limits), there was no cap on the increases and it was too high to start with. The city has already tacked on a city operations fee to our water/sewer bills without asking and it increases whenever they want it to. I have no doubt that the same would happen with the proposed wage tax. I think it would just make it harder to hire qualified people to work in Salem if they had to pay a tax to work here.
I would rather the city research why the State of Oregon, which pays no property tax to the city, yet uses the infrastructure, police and fire services, cannot pay some sort of amount to help fund these services. Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. A sales tax might drive away visitors to the businesses here and it would hurt those with lower income, so I don’t think this is a good route to take. Having the state pony up something towards the services they use makes more sense to me.”
“I voted no for two reasons:
1 . The complexity.
2. Totally new tax which means a new bureaucracy.
Why not increase existing taxes, if possible, or tax on high earners but not every day workers.”
Reluctant “yes” voters
“I voted yes; however, I didn’t think it was fair that I, a retired person not working in Salem, was not going to be taxed and still be able to benefit from what would have been funded.
I have not come up with a way to tax those of us who are able to pay a bit more in taxes and still tax people who use our services and don’t live here.”
“I reluctantly voted yes on the payroll tax proposal, but only because time is short and Salem desperately needs more revenue. Our property tax revenue does not even support the police and fire we have now and there’s a good argument we need more.
The lessons I draw from this fiasco are not new ones.
1. People don’t like to pay taxes in general. We want what we want, but don’t want to pay for it.
2. This particular tax had too many flaws to sell. City staff and city council dropped the ball by failing to do the prep work needed to clearly decide how the tax would work and limit its administrative complexity. Voters and employers didn’t trust that vagueness. And retirees, some of whom have more wealth than many working families, were not taxed by the proposal.
3. Our state tax system is broken and needs to be fixed. It feels like we are just nickel-and-diming voters without an overall solution. A real fix would take a serious public conversation and the right leadership. Even so, I’m not sure Oregonians would be up for that. We are too focused on the dysfunction at the national level.
This all makes me quite sad.”
“Although I thought the payroll tax was unfair since retirees, like my husband and me, as well as people who work outside Salem were exempt, I voted for the tax because the city needs the money.
I would like to see Gov. Kotek and members of the legislature send to voters a change to the law that limits property taxes. People should be able to vote for a safety levy, for example, and have the tax apply to everyone without the limits of compression.”
Frustrations with city leadership
“City Council boldly presumed they could tax Salem employees without representation or having a vote, this is a huge mistake. Second mistake: too many issues rolled into one tax, if you separate the issues and you will likely gain some support. While I am all for paying some additional tax for police and fire salaries, I believe the city should consider salary savings and eliminate unfilled positions that are currently vacant. Cities across America have all had to make cuts, Salem is no different, cut back hours the library is open and eliminate vacant positions or close one library. This is not a time where families have disposable income and the city should behave as though they do not have disposable income either.
My recommendation is to put forward a tax for emergency services, police and fire. Let the people vote.
Put forward another measure to fund homeless services and let the people vote.
Rework the tax language and provide an expiration date. Eliminate any language that requires people to track what city they worked each day. It’s a bookkeeping nightmare for people who do not have an office in Salem or whose jobs involve travel. You are asking the middle class and self employed to bear the burden of this tax. Consider a tax for employers with more than X number of employees. There should be several ways to increase income to the city to spread out the burden across multiple groups or types of taxpayers. There is no one way of meeting the challenges of the budget.”
“I’m thinking about generating an email for the Mayor, Council, and City Manager. My experience with regulatory overburden in the past few years has convinced me that we should not be adding revenues to City of Salem coffers, simply to enforce a Salem Revised Code which has reached draconian proportions. It seems that the authors of much of the SRC have forgotten that the Declaration of Independence included a libertarian trajectory that set the objective of allowing citizens to enjoy Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. To many attorneys with to much time and to little sense, have brought us to the point that the administrative overburden at City Hall has increased the cost of living, increased the marginalization of certain populations in the city, without generating a more livable city.
Public Safety does need enhancement, but the trajectory of the SRC does not contribute to that objective.”
“I voted NO on the city wage tax because I’m tired of the local government not balancing their budgets. I have to balance mine every month, down to the penny. I have no new source of income to draw from when prices go up, so I budget accordingly.
The fact that the city of Salem just enacted this ridiculous tax willy-nilly, without even considering putting it to the voters infuriated me and obviously many others.
Also, the state of Oregon is set to give back billions of dollars to taxpayers because of a huge surplus of revenue. Why can’t Salem tap some of that revenue stream? If new laws are needed to do so then enact them! Don’t come to us with levies and extra taxes, we pay enough already!”
“My concerns? That City Council will seek revenge on the voters for failing to pass this ridiculous tax. They will cut necessary and important services, gut the police, fire and rescue departments just to “show those voters a thing or two” and to remind us “who’s really in charge around here.” The City Council can always find the money for whatever trinkets catch their eyes or for the latest program de jour but, when it comes to basic services, they cry poor and claim that isn’t enough money.
I find the City’s cavalier attitude toward my money to be galling. The government via the media keeps trying to tell me that I’m doing so much better these days, that the border is secure and prices are coming down. And yet every week when I go grocery shopping, I have sticker shock. Prices are not slowly creeping up. They’re increasing by leaps and bounds. On top of gasoline and food prices that have almost doubled in the past two years, the City wanted to impose a tax that even in the best of times would have hurt a lot of families. For the City, we represent an endless supply of cash, the proverbial blank check to spend as they wish.
I’m proud that the voters in Salem finally said ‘Enough is enough. I’ve had it. You can’t take anymore from me.'”
“I voted no on the tax increase for two reasons. First the council members that wanted it should never have just assumed they could push it through because they thought it was best for the masses and I applaud Vanessa Nordyke for being one that stood up for the people. Two, there are working members in our community that are barely making ends meet as it is. I have a feeling they will find a way to streamline their spending and get more for their dollar now.”
“I voted against the tax because:
Tax was open-ended as to what it would really fund
I perceived the City Council issuing threats if it didn’t pass
There was never any discussion of eliminating “unfilled police/fire” positions, some of which have remained unfilled for years;
The City has known for some time that there is a serious funding shortfall but has continued to operate without enacting measures to counteract same.”
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.