Salem city hall (Salem Reporter)

If you’re one of about 40,000 homeowners in Salem, you may soon see an $8 fee on your monthly utility bill. It will be the city’s newest way to help pay for firefighters, police and other services.

Salem City Council on Monday approved the fee by a 6-3 vote, after councilors weighed whether to pass it by their own power or let voters decide.

Barring any late challenges, the fee could first appear on utility bills February 2020 and raise $7.1 million in its first year for Salem’s struggling general fund, according to city staff. As an ordinance, the fee will first get a first and second reading at council meetings. Residents could petition for vote.

Councilors who favored passing the fee said they did so because maintaining services will ultimately help the public.

“While not everybody’s comfortable with it... The majority of the folks are really concerned with the maintenance of our public safety services, which is the vast majority of the general fund budget,” said Councilor Chris Hoy.

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While most of the fees will hit utility accounts for single-family residences, accounts for multifamily, commercial, public, industrial and institutional buildings will also pay the fee. 

Residential accounts, of which there are 40,012 in the city,  will pay $8 per month. The city’s 23,971 multifamily accounts will pay $6.40 per unit. The balance, which are often large landholders, will pay $38.56 per account per month. Salem offers a discount for qualifying accounts.

Discussions Monday night largely revolved around whether voters should decide. Councilors and members of the public who spoke largely supported helping the general fund, but differed on whether it should it go to a vote.

Councilor Jim Lewis proposed a substitute motion to put it to voters, which was supported only by Mayor Chuck Bennett and Councilor Brad Nanke.

Bennett said Salem's officials still needed to make their case to the public.

"We do have time to make the case and educate how the city’s finances look. I get the feeling the story isn’t out there clearly and that’s what elections are all about," he said.

Councilor Tom Andersen, echoing an earlier public comment, said voters had their say when they voted for councilors. He said he'd heard from many residents who do want to see a vote, but more who support councilors' decision.

"I think we were elected to make decisions. This is our decision, so I will vote against (Lewis's motion to put it to voters)," Andersen said.

The fee is one of two dual revenue options Salem officials hope to see enacted and used to raise money for the city’s general fund. Councilors on Aug. 12 agreed to send the second option, a tax on wages of people who work in Salem, to voters.

Salem's general fund has struggled to keep pace with the rising costs of wages and costs of retirement and healthcare. Salem has sought ways to bring in millions more annually, or else start making cuts to services by 2021.

The $7.1 million raised by the fee is equivalent to 42 police officers or five fire stations, according to the city of Salem's staff report.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.