City News

Community polling shows most Salemites would pay more for fire, police

Most Salemites are willing to pay more to fund police and fire, according to a city survey and series of town halls intended to guide decisions around ways to bring more money into city coffers.

But the survey also showed that the community’s favored revenue options are at odds with its priorities. That means Salem’s revenue task force will have to balance feasibility and popularity when making their final recommendations to the city’s elected leaders.

“My takeaway from looking at all of these tools is exactly what got us into this problem, which is: ‘I want everything paid for, but somebody else can pay for it,’” said task force member Kathy Knock, a city employee, during a meeting on April 25. 

The City of Salem Funding Survey, which cost the city $45,000, polled 400 Salemites over the phone and online about their feelings toward city services, what they want to see funded and how they want the city to pay for it. The survey had quotas so that respondent demographics reflected the city’s adult population.

Just under half of respondents said that, in general, they don’t want to pay any more taxes or fees and would prefer to cut city services. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they’d pay more to sustain services that the city’s doing now, and 22% said they’d pay still more to expand existing services. Eight percent said they didn’t know.

But people were more willing to pay money for specific services.

Most residents, 68%, said they’d pay more to the fire department and 60% said they’d pay more to fund the police. In third place, 49% of survey respondents said they’d pay more to fund parks maintenance, followed by the library at 47%.

The library was the most popular option at the three town halls held on April 10, 16 and 24. Consultants said those events drew more engaged community members with knowledge of the issues since it was an event that people opted-in to showing up to, rather than a cold call. 

Former State Librarian Jim Scheppke, who co-founded “Fund Our Libraries” to advocate for library funding, said during public testimony that he’s seen interest in a library-specific levy, which would raise property taxes, or a library taxing district. He asked the revenue task force to invest in polling the public on the options.

At the town halls, which an estimated 150 people attended, consultants at Moss Adams gave the attendees a presentation about the state of city finances and revenue goals before asking them to rank their feelings about the pathways ahead and share comments.

The town hall polling found that most attendees were willing to pay more for the library and recreation services.

Both methods found that people’s preferred way of paying more would be a user fee, which applies to people who use the services, like traffic tickets, ambulance service fees or a fee to install an electric vehicle charger.

During the meeting, task force members said these options wouldn’t bring in much money, and would disproportionately impact low-income people, which would be at odds with the participants’ other priority of an equitable option.

Over half of survey respondents — 64% — said they want the revenue option to charge people in proportion to their income or wealth.

A board at a revenue task force town hall on April 23, showing comments in favor of taxing the wealthy to fund Salem services (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Most preferred that any new taxes be applied to businesses rather than families, which task force members pointed out was at odds with the number one listed priority of limiting impact to the local economy. The polling data did not differentiate small businesses from large.

The data presents a complicated public perception which task force members will be considering over their next three meetings, before presenting their final recommendations to the city council in July. 

John Horvick, a consultant with DHM Research who conducted the survey, said during the meeting that both the survey and town hall perspectives, while not in alignment, are important for gauging public reception to the task force’s proposals. He said that most people won’t know the level of detail presented at the town hall when voting, and didn’t have to wrestle with questions of feasibility.

“It’s important, I think, to be clear-eyed about the realities of how people are going to think through what’s important to them and what they value,” Horvick said. “Both (the town hall and survey) are important, and the fact that they don’t align presents one of the challenges for us. But that also helps us understand the playing field that we’re on.”

The payroll tax, which would have taxed wages earned in the city above minimum wage to fund police, fire and homeless services, overwhelmingly failed at the ballot box in November 2023.

Given the contradicting demands, the revenue task force will have to communicate clearly with the public about their selected revenue options, and how they weighed their choices, said member Becky Beaman, a retired career military member. 

The group has already identified the seven options they’re most interested in, which include a local option property tax levy, a personal income tax and business license fees.

“We’re going to have to be real careful about how we present this,” she said.

Meanwhile, the city’s budget committee has spent its last few meetings revising City Manager Keith Stahley’s proposed budget for the next year, which was designed around the assumption that no new revenue would be available.

So far, the budget committee, which includes the city council, has voted to move funds to prevent cuts to the library for another year and keep a graffiti abatement position set to be cut, both using temporary stopgaps.

In a May 5 email to councilors, who will have the final say on the budget, Stahley said he hopes the revenue task force will be able to resolve the city’s budget issues, but to prepare for deeper cuts ahead.

“Even as we are coming to the end of this year’s budget process, I am thinking ahead to next year. We will present an updated financial forecast in January of 2025. All indicators suggest that the gap between revenue and expenditures will continue to grow,” he said.

He said that in future years, the increasing gap will mean the cuts first presented in September 2023 are likely or may be deepened. Those cuts include the closure of the West Salem Library branch, cutting 10 police officers in 2025 and closing a fire station in 2027.

Stahley said that cuts are not the solution to the budget challenges, and that continuing to take from one program to fund another will not create a city that meets its service needs.

“I believe that we need to grow the pie to become the community we want. Cutting the pie into ever smaller slices will only result in programs and services that no longer meet anyone’s needs. I will continue to advocate for additional revenues until council and the community says that’s not the approach we want to take,” he said. 

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.