City News

Salem budget committee votes to keep water on, continue programs in city parks  

Members of the Salem City Budget Committee painted a grim picture of empty, brown lawns, and water fountains running dry in Salem’s city parks Wednesday, but ultimately voted on May 8 to use over $500,000 to keep water flowing to parks and to renew a number of beloved events and programs.

The vote was split in favor of pulling roughly $518,000 from the city’s cultural and tourism fund to be used to keep splash pads, bathrooms and water fountains maintained and operational this summer, and also to continue programs like the Salem Kids Relays, and movies and concerts in Riverfront Park.

The price tag for keeping the water running and maintaining the city’s parks was $422,000, and remained a higher priority for many of the committee members and members of the community alike.

That will allow splash pads in Wes Bennett, Fairmount, Englewood, West Salem, Northgate and River Road to operate this summer. 

The programming at the park cost an extra $96,000, and ultimately made the cut as well.

How the budget committee voted

On spending $422,000 to turn water on at parks over the summer

Yes: City councilors Virginia Stapleton, Vicki Varney, Linda Nishioka, Vanessa Nordyke, Julie Hoy and Deanna Gwyn and budget committee members Nick Beleiciks, Andrew Cohen, Stacey Vieyra-Braendle, Bill Dixon, Julie Curtis, David Gier, Irvin Brown and Evan Manvel. 

No: Mayor Chris Hoy, and city councilors Trevor Phillips, Jose Gonzalez, budget committee member Russell Allen. 

On spending $96,000 to bring back park movies, concerts and relays

Yes: City councilors Deanna Gwyn, Julie Hoy, and Vanessa Nordyke, and budget committee members Nick Beleiciks, Andrew Cohen, Stacey Vieyra-Braendle, Bill Dixon, Julie Curtis, David Gier, and Irvin Brown. 

No: Mayor Chris Hoy, city councilors Virginia Stapleton, Trevor Phillips, Jose Gonzalez, Micki Varney, and Linda Nishioka and budget committee members Russell Allen and Evan Manvel. 

The motion to fund the parks and keep the water running was made by budget committee member Bill Dixon, and David Gier made the motion to add funding programming at the parks.

The committee voted 10-8 in favor of funding park relays, movies and concerts, and voted 14-4 in favor keeping the water on and operating Salem’s parks. 

Irvin Brown, the chair of the budget committee, reminded the committee that the final decision to adopt the budget recommendations remains with the city council, who will vote on the budget in June.

The 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 last week. 

Mayor Chris Hoy voted no on funding both items, saying he was concerned about drawing down the city’s savings account. 

“I’m not convinced that we can afford these things. I very much want to restore these things to our parks. I talked last time about how important the splash pads and other things are,” Chris Hoy said. “I’ve wanted all along to be able to afford these things and have taken other actions to make sure we could. But the reality is, I don’t think we can.” 

Hoy said his priorities were with the city’s historical buildings which will eventually need to have their roofs replaced. He said the money on the line to fund the city’s parks and programs should be saved for that purpose. 

Chris Hoy’s opponent in the upcoming mayoral election, Councilor Julie Hoy, voted yes on funding both items. The two are not related.

City councilor Trevor Phillips argued the city should seek to save money for the possibility of an environmental disruption given the reality of a warming planet and climate change. Phillips voted no on both motions. 

He did say that splash pads and water were a higher priority for him for safety and health reasons, but pointed out that the city only currently has about a half a million dollars left in discretionary funds. 

“We may need these funds for something that may be even more expensive than what we are considering. This is like the last half million dollars of any discretion that we have, and having no additional wiggle room may also have costs. This is tight,” Phillips said. 

Despite the budget constraints, it was clear to the committee that the public wanted to maintain Salem’s parks. 

A flurry of emails and drawings by children supporting funding Salem’s parks and splash pads reached the committee both this week and last leading up to the committee’s recommendation. 

“I am…incredibly embarrassed by this city. You’re telling me we can approve a $79 million refurbishment for our police department over the course of two years, but we can’t keep our splash pads and public library open?” resident Maryhanna Mejia wrote to the budget committee. “As a capital city, that’s embarrassing and we should just say it as it is.”

Budget committee member Andrew Cohen, who voted both times to approve the funding, urged city leaders to consider the message it would send to not fund the parks and programs. Cohen, a father of three, said he wouldn’t want to live in a Salem where children can’t even get a drink of water at the park on a hot day. 

“There are some real consequences to us not doing this. And to us not aligning our strategic vision to our families, because those families will leave. Those families have already started to leave. I want us to really consider that,” Cohen said. I want us to really consider that and for the city manager, when you are making the budget for the next fiscal year, to really consider, if you are going to make cuts, don’t penalize families.” 

Cohen said it is crucial to fund parks to attract tourists and new residents to Salem. 

“Tourism wise, if I am an out-of-towner coming in here and I see brown lawns and water fountains that don’t work, why would I want to come and live here? Why would I want to come and put my hard earned money into this city?” Cohen said. “If you are not considering that, I think that you need to reconsider why you would even want to invest in tourism at all.” 

City Councilor Virginia Stapelton took offense to Cohen’s comments. Stapleton, who is running for House District 21, said being fiscally conservative at a time when tough decisions need to be made about budget cuts does not mean she or any of her colleagues are against families.

“I feel a jab coming from your direction. Against me, just because I am somebody who is really wrestling with both of these motions,” Stapleton said. “Me being against families couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am completely for families. I am completely for making this city liveable and beautiful and parks vibrant and libraries fully staffed with branch libraries … I can see a future for our city that is beautiful.” 

She voted against funding movies and concerts, but yes to keep parks operating.

The committee wrapped up its work on the budget Wednesday, voting to recommend it to the city council for adoption. The council will hold a public hearing June 10 and vote on the budget at its June 24 meeting.

Correction: This story originally misspelled Trevor Phillips’ name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 503-335-7790.

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Joe Siess is a reporter for Salem Reporter. Joe joined Salem Reporter in 2024 and primarily covers city and county government but loves surprises. Joe previously reported for the Redmond Spokesman, the Bulletin in Bend, Klamath Falls Herald and News and the Malheur Enterprise. He was born in Independence, MO, where the Oregon Trail officially starts, and grew up in the Kansas City area.