Budget committee restores graffiti abatement, but splash pads up in the air

The Salem Police Department won’t lose a graffiti abatement worker next year as expected, but the future of splash pads and summer parks events remains in limbo after four hours of work by the budget committee this week.

The city committee, which includes all city councilors, voted unanimously on Wednesday, May 1, to keep the graffiti job in the police department budget. City Manager Keith Stahley recommended cutting it as part of his budget-balancing plan. That would have left just one police employee removing graffiti.

Mayor Chris Hoy proposed spending $91,500 from the city’s savings to pay for the job for another year.

“This is a position we just can’t afford to live without,” he said. “It’s critical to our city, critical to our livability.”

City Councilor Julie Hoy, no relation, who is running for mayor against Chris Hoy, agreed and thanked the mayor for his proposal.

Budget committee members for an hour discussed strategies to avoid all the cuts Stahley proposed y to city parks maintenance and summer recreation events, but took no action. Members said they wanted to better understand the feasibility and cost of turning on water and splash pads at some parks before taking action.

Stahley’s budget would take $700,000 from current parks operations, which would close restrooms, turn off irrigation and close splash pads at neighborhood parks for the summer. Only the splash pad in Riverfront Park would operate under his plan.

His budget discontinues funding for summer movies and concerts in Riverfront Park. Restoring money for those events has been a major topic of discussion, but the committee has not yet voted on any method to do so.

The city’s total general fund budget, which pays for most city operations, is $188 million.

Get involved

The city of Salem’s budget committee meets Wednesday, May 8, at 6 p.m. in the city council chambers at City Hall, 555 Liberty St. S.E. The committee will discuss and possibly vote on proposals to fund splash pads and parks events this summer.

Committee agendas are posted here, and the meeting will be streamed live on YouTube here

Anyone can sign up to testify at the meeting about any part of the budget, or submit written comments. More about how to weigh in on the budget is here.

Graffiti abatement

Gang graffiti is a regular concern that Salem citizens, particularly in north and east Salem, have raised as the city confronts an increase in shootings and violence.

Neighborhood leaders who organize events in local parks say promptly removing gang graffiti makes residents feel safer in parks and can head off conflict between gangs or groups. Groups can use graffiti to threaten one another or broadcast intentions.

The committee vote to continue graffiti abatement crews came after Lynn Takata, chair of Northeast Neighbors, testified that such remediation is a low-cost crime prevention strategy.

“Graffiti can be a predictor of violent crime. It’s not just an aesthetic issue,” she said. 

Takata has been active for years in coordinating neighborhood residents to report and clean up graffiti in and around Englewood Park. She acted after a 2019 shooting left a teenager dead in the park, and another shooting was reported in 2020.

The park hasn’t seen a shooting since.

“The major strategy we used was the prompt removal of graffiti and that made all the difference,” she said. “Graffiti abatement … can protect both our youth who are being shot as well as the community surrounding these shootings.”

Josh Eggleston, the city’s chief financial officer, said pulling $91,500 would bring Salem close to having inadequate savings. By policy, the city is supposed to maintain a 15% reserve for unexpected expenses.

Even with the position restored, graffiti abatement work would still be reduced. Some graffiti cleanup is handled by parks employees, and seasonal maintenance for parks is being cut significantly.

Splash pads and park events

Children and families who live around Englewood Park submitted more than 20 pages of handwritten and hand-drawn testimony urging the committee not to turn off splash pads for the summer.

The city manager proposed turning off water for splash pads at Wes Bennett, Fairmount, Englewood, West Salem, Northgate and River Road to save money.

Riley Preis, 13, was among the Englewood residents who urged the mayor to preserve money for local parks.

“There are many kids like me that have grown up in this neighborhood. Many don’t have AC or pools and the nice shady park and splash pads are the best way to cool down,” she wrote. “Can you please make Salem better for kids like me and my little sister?”

Budget committee members seemed generally supportive of restoring some parks maintenance funding, but asked city leaders for more data about the costs of turning water on for some parks and not others.

Several members said parks maintenance is both a crime prevention and equity issue, and raised concerns that parks would become blighted.

“It will undermine the integrity of neighborhood parks, make them less accessible to taxpayers … increase their exposure to vandalism and criminal activity and reduce the livability of their neighborhoods,” said committee member Bill Dixon.

Deputy City Manager Scott Archer said it’s difficult to separate costs for items like splash pads, because such water features, fountains and restrooms all rely on the same irrigation network. Turning it on for one thing means having staff to for maintenance or to repair vandalism.

Archer said he would return for the committee’s May 8 meeting with more specific numbers.

The likely funding source for retaining more parks maintenance is the city’s tourism fund – the same money that Mayor Chris Hoy earlier tapped to avoid proposed library cuts.

Most of that money comes from Salem’s hotel tax and is restricted to promoting tourism and cultural events.

But several million dollars saved from federal Covid allocations can be spent for general city operations, city attorney Dan Atchison told the committee.

Committee members have discussed using about $96,000 from the tourism fund to restore summer movies and concerts in Riverfront Park this summer, as well as the JC Relay for 2025.

If the money isn’t spent on park operations or events, it would remain in the tourism fund and likely pay to maintain city historic buildings.

Abbey McDonald contributed reporting.

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.