The Salem Fire Department (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

The city of Salem plans to ask voters to approve spending $300 million over 10 years to pay for infrastructure improvements, fire equipment and parks.

The bond would be on the November 2022 ballot. City officials said it won’t raise property taxes because it replaces other expiring bonds.

A steering committee, comprised of Mayor Chuck Bennett and Councilors Jose Gonzalez, Chris Hoy, Jim Lewis, and Virginia Stapleton, will help guide priorities for the measure.

They meet for the first time on Dec. 3.

The bulk of the money – $150 million – would go toward improving streets, bridges and sidewalks.

City officials said if voters pass the bond, they’ll keep the same bonded levy rate due to some bonds getting paid off.

In 2008 Salem voters approved borrowing $100 million to pay for more than 40 street and bridge projects. The city was able to stretch those funds by refinancing and is still using some of the money to pay for projects today. 

Josh Eggleston, budget officer, said those payments are dropping over the next few years which allows the city to issue more bonds without raising the levy rate.  

He said they’re projecting a tax rate between $1.20 and $1.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value if the bond passes. The estimated rate for fiscal year 2022 is $1.28 per $1,000. That rate is separate from taxes paid for regular city operations.

Eggleston said that’s just a target rate and the county will determine the actual number.

At the start of next year, the city will hold public meetings and hearings to home in on what priorities will be included in the bond measure.

DHM Research will poll residents ahead of the election.

In March, the Salem City Council will hold a work session to solicit community feedback for bond priorities.

“Those kinds of conversations are still what we’re looking forward to having,” Courtney Knox-Busch, strategic initiatives manager, said.

Salem is projected to see an $8.4 million increase in federal funding over the next five years from the federal infrastructure package passed in November. Knox-Busch said there’s currently one project that’s designed to federal standards – Southeast McGilchrist Street.

She said anytime federal funding becomes available the city tries to push the $22.3 million project forward. Improvements to that street would add bike lanes, curbs, gutters, sidewalks and drainage systems.

But the bond will allow the city to move forward with projects that don't qualify for federal dollars.

“For some of our projects, going for federal funding just doesn’t make any sense because it costs more to be competitive in that arena,” she said.

Fire

The bond would pay for new fire trucks and engines to the tune of $26 million. That has been highlighted as a major priority of the bond funds.

Fire Chief Mike Niblock said the department needs to replace its entire fleet.

They plan to buy 16 fire engines at a projected cost of $700,000 each.

He said engines typically last 15 years. If the bond is passed, Salem’s fire engines will be 16 to 17 years old by the time they’re replaced.

The department also wants to purchase three new ladder trucks at a cost of $1.5 million apiece.

He said over the last five years maintenance costs have soared 83%.

That’s because the trucks are older, each pushing 400,000 miles, and facing issues like brake leaks and needed radiator repairs.

In fiscal year 2019-20, the department spent $895,000 on repairing its vehicles.

Those repairs have come as firefighters are responding to more and more calls.

In 2018, the department responded to 25,431 calls. This year, Niblock said they’re almost running 30,000 calls.

“The trucks are shiny on the outside. I know this is an uphill battle, they’re shiny, they’re pretty. Mechanically, they’re tired,” he said.

Niblock said during the February ice storm a large tree branch damaged the ladder bucket on one of the trucks.

He said it took six months to have that repaired. Meantime, firefighters used a bucket that was 30 years old.

“At the end of the day they’re not designed to go much past the way they are now,” he said.

Some parts have to be custom made because they’re no longer being manufactured.

He said the department buys all its rigs at the same time so they all drive the same and have the same parts.

The downside is that they all wear out at the same time, he said.

Another $14 million would pay for new fire stations.

The department is looking at relocating Station 8 which is currently on Chemeketa Community College’s campus and outside city limits.

Niblock said a new station would be relocated along Portland Road to better serve the northern end of the city.

He said they’re also looking at building another station in the Mill Creek area in southeast Salem.

Streets, bridges, sidewalks

With community input, the city plans to create a list of projects to improve sidewalks and bicycle facilities, construct new streets, replace and rehabilitate bridges, advance safer pedestrian crossing projects and replace or add traffic signals. 

Initial ideas could include improvements to Northwest Doaks Ferry Road, Southeast Battle Creek Road, South Browning Avenue, Northeast Fisher Road and Northeast Sunnyview Avenue, according to a staff report provided to councilors.

Parks

The city’s parks system would get a boost with $35 million to pay for investments like new bathrooms, pickleball courts, dog parks and trails.

A staff report provided to city councilors said parks with master plans, like Geer Park, would make good candidates for the money.

New bathrooms at Wallace Marine Park and Marion Square Park were specifically called out in the plan.

Sheltering

Knox-Busch said $15 million would be set aside to buy property for affordable housing or emergency shelter.

She said the city is still exploring how it could support more affordable housing.

Knox-Busch said the city has to the be the owner for the life of the bond, meaning it couldn’t bond for projects the Salem Housing Authority would own.

She said perhaps the funding could be used to purchase the site of a microshelter village.

IT

About $15 million would be set aside for IT improvements like a redundant fiber and data warehouse. It would replace aging technology for which there are no other funding sources.

Public building improvements

Salem’s city hall needs renovations to address seismic needs and other accessibility improvements and $12 million would be set aside for that purpose.

“Windows require replacement. The skylight in the courtyard requires removal or replacement. The parking garage is no longer structurally sound. The Civic Center lacks back-up power generation,” reads a staff report. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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