City News

Budget committee votes to fund Salem’s library following outpouring of community support

Salem will keep its remaining librarians this year after the city’s budget committee unanimously voted Wednesday to use money from the city’s hotel tax to fend off proposed cuts.

The vote came after over an hour of public testimony from library employees and a diverse group of supporters that included a state senator, educators, parents and one elementary school student. More than 75 people submitted written testimony opposing cuts.

“No more cuts to our library please,” said Zoey Harper, a first grade student in southeast Salem. “I learned to read by myself before kindergarten and I love reading books. It’s one of my favorite things to do, I just love this library.”

The committee unanimously approved Mayor Chris Hoy’s proposal to tap around $1.2 million in savings from the city’s transient occupancy tax to fund library jobs for one year, keep the West Salem Branch open and maintain programs. The decision pushed back layoffs for three librarians, three library assistants and two other vacant jobs which had been slated for cuts in July.

Hoy said the measure is meant as a stopgap while the city’s revenue task force seeks alternate ways to bring in money to fund city services sustainably.

“This isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s a one time fix while we’re working on developing a longer term plan,” he told Salem Reporter on Tuesday. “We can’t have more cuts to our library, that’s just the bottom line, because it’s already gone through too many cuts.”

Councilor Julie Hoy, who is running against Chris Hoy for mayor, voted for the proposal. The two are not related.

“A stopgap is not a solution for funding for something that’s so important to so many in this community, obviously,” she said during the meeting. “It’s going to keep those people in their jobs, and that’s what matters to me most if we make this attempt, but I certainly want better from our budget.”

The budget committee’s vote followed weeks of public support for the library in rallies and through hundreds of emails to councilors. Library leaders elected last year to stop filling vacant positions in anticipation of future budget cuts, resulting in the main library closing Sundays and evenings due to lack of staff.

Union-represented positions are required by contract to be laid off in inverse seniority, with the newest hires cut first. Library employees said the proposed cuts would disproportionately impact Spanish-language programs because a majority of employees identified for layoffs were bilingual.

The committee also tabled an amendment from member Andrew Cohen, who sought to pull more from the occupancy tax money to fund Movies in the Park, Kids Relays and First Friday concerts, all set to be cut this summer to save roughly $96,000. The committee voted to wait until next week to reconsider it, so city staff can have time to evaluate cost estimates and the legality of the move.

The budget committee includes the mayor, all eight Salem city councilors, plus nine appointed community volunteers.

Tapping Salem’s tourism fund

The money the city will now use to pay library operating costs was savings sitting in a city account intended to support tourism and cultural facilities. The money comes from a tax levied on hotel stays within city limits.

That fund had $4.2 million at the start of the budget year, which Chief Financial Officer Josh Eggleston said was intended to support ongoing programs in the future.

He said that the one-time use of the money for the library isn’t projected to impact tourism programs in the next five years, but repeated use would.

City Attorney Dan Atchison said during the meeting that he evaluated Hoy’s original proposal to fund the library and believes it is consistent with state law and the city charter. The tax is required to be used for specific purposes, including improvements to, or operation of, major tourist attractions or cultural facilities and activities that promote tourism.

“It is my determination that the Salem library meets both definitions of a cultural facility, as well as a tourism facility under state law,” he said.

He said he anticipates there will be further discussions with the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has objected to the use of the funds to the library. In a statement, they said that any money raised through increases in the tax rate since 2003 must be allocated 70% to tourism promotion or facilities. Thirty percent can be used however the local government sees fit.

Association President Jason Brandt, in a Thursday phone interview with Salem Reporter, said that the associate is still assessing the situation and use of funds.

“Unless a library has a substantial purpose of supporting tourism, then it doesn’t count as a tourism-related facility,” he said. The unrestricted portion of the tax funds can be used on city functions like libraries, police, fire and streets.

Brandt said the association plans to take action, as it has against other Oregon cities, if it determines the funds haven’t followed those rules. 

Brandt said he hadn’t been aware the city had millions sitting in reserves for tourism, which he described as deeply concerning.

“In our post-pandemic world, hotels and restaurants do not want to see their local government sitting on funds that can bring new dollars into their community,” he said.

Councilors back library unanimously

During the meeting, City Manager Keith Stahley said he fully supports the one-time use of the funds for the library and parks services as a temporary fix while the city works to address structural issues.

Councilor Micki Varney, who has been advocating to keep the West Salem Library branch open since the proposed cuts were presented the fall, said during the meeting that she was happy to keep the doors open for the people who need it for internet and book access.

City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke, who supported a library rally ahead of the budget committee meeting, recalled her childhood going to the Salem Public Library, and the support it’s given her family member with disabilities.

“It’s personal for me, but it’s personal for the hundreds of people who have been rallying outside city hall, who lined up to testify here tonight, who testified in droves in writing, I want to say thank you. Thank you to every last one of you” she said.

The budget committee passed the motion unanimously, with a few saying “heck yes” rather than aye. The decision was met with cheers by those in attendance. 

Sen. Deb Patterson thanked councilors during public testimony for finding a temporary fix and said during public testimony she would continue to work to secure funding from the state of Oregon to support city services. 

A 2024 bill supported by Patterson, and Salem Reps. Tom Andersen and Kevin Mannix would have given the city an annual state payment to cover the cost of providing public safety services to state buildings. It died in committee, and Andersen has indicated he plans to revive the effort in 2025. Gov. Tina Kotek said she would sign a bill giving Salem regular state payments if it reached her desk.

The budget committee will continue its discussions next week, on April 24. See a guide for how to watch or participate in upcoming budget, revenue task force and city council meetings here:

Managing Editor Rachel Alexander contributed reporting. 

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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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.