Salem City Hall pictured over the summer. Salem City Council on Monday appointed a 14-person task force to look at the ways the city currently makes money and how it might make more. (File/Salem Reporter)
While the private sector enjoys one of the longest economic expansions in history, Salem’s general fund has finished in the red the last two years.
The problem: even with revenues rising, running the city is becoming more expensive.
To address the gap, the Salem City Council recently appointed a 14-person task force to look at ways the city currently makes money and how the city might make more.
The task force, detailed below, is not made up of financial gurus, but people from groups that could be impacted by the ways the city already makes money, such as fees on construction, franchises and more.
The task force will begin meeting Oct. 15, the first of four planned meetings, and will report recommendations to the city.
Mayor Chuck Bennett said the task force would hear what residents and groups want from the city and help those groups understand what constraints the city faces.
“It helps to understand just how limited the revenue opportunities are for local government in this state,” he said. “It helps you when you start making spending decisions. Can you or can’t you sustain programs over time if the revenue starts to change?”
Changes are already underway for the general fund, which pays for city staff, police, fire, library services, parks and more, according to the city’s budget forecast for years 2019 through 2023.
Payments made to the Public Employee Retirement System are expected to rise in the coming years, as are expenses for the city’s police and fire, which have hired more. Property taxes are the city's biggest revenue source and are expected to rise, but not as much.
Rising expenses have been a reality for a number of years, said Kacey Duncan, deputy city manager. He noted how hiring has not kept pace with the growth of the city. The number of full-time city employees per 1,000 residents has dropped over the last two decades: from 9.37 in 1998, to 8.37 in 2008, to 7.47 in 2018.
“I think that’s just a good indication as we are a service organization and those services are provided by people,” Duncan said. “As you see the reduction of employees as they’ve occurred, we’ve done everything we can to maintain services.”
The task force won’t solve those issues outright, Duncan said, but will help different segments of the community understand the interplay between desired services, costs and places to get money to cover those costs.
It’s unclear at this point what the group could suggest, such as having the city charge more for permits or advocating for policy changes that restrict revenues for the city.
“We’ve got to close that gap in some manner. We’re taking a look at our priorities through budgeting,” Duncan said. “This is an attempt to look at potential revenue measures. Again, this is all a preliminary look.”
Raquel Moore-Green, an appointee to the task force and a member of Salem’s Citizen Budget Committee, told Salem Reporter she is excited to get to work but recognizes the challenge.
“It’s a great group of people, but these are difficult questions to answer,” she said.
She added that she liked that city leaders bring more people and groups into the budgeting process and it should help the community stay involved.
“It’s not behind closed doors or just elected officials” making the decisions, she said. “It’s the citizens.”
Those appointed to the task force include:
· Mayor Chuck Bennett
· Councilor Matt Ausec
· Councilor Steve McCoid
· Raquel Moore-Green, board member of the Citizen Budget Committee
· Ray Quisenberry of 350 Salem OR
· Antonia Decker of the Straub Environmental Center
· Monica D. Pacheco of the Salem Fire Foundation
· Dan Wellert of the Salem Police Foundation
· Mike Erdmann of the Home Builders Association of Marion and Polk Counties
· Britni Davidson-Cruickshank of Salem Electric
· Theresa Haskins, board member of Salem Economic Development Corp.
· Dayna Jung, board member of the Latino Business Alliance
· Kasia Quillinan, board member of Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board
· Jesse Gasper, of Oregon Marshallese Community