Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett films a video acceptance for a literacy award in April 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Mayor Chuck Bennett beseeched Salem residents to vote for an upcoming infrastructure bond, highlighted the Salem Fire Department’s record call volume and said the city will do everything it can to address homelessness but won’t solve the issue.

Bennett, 73, delivered his sixth and final State of the City address in front of a seated crowd at the Salem Convention Center Wednesday. His term ends this year, and he isn’t seeking re-election.

Homelessness

Bennett said the city’s focus this year will be to have everyone living in safe, appropriate housing.

“Not on our streets, not on our sidewalks and especially not in our parks,” told the crowd.  

He cited a three-step plan to accomplish that.

“I’m going to give you the bad news first. We won’t make it. I just want you to understand we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen, we won’t make it,” he said.

One step was adding more shelter beds for women specifically, because they make up more than half of the people experiencing homelessness in Salem. That’s in contrast to both state and national trends.

He also said the city needed more resources to clean up homeless camps more quickly.

The third prong was opening the city’s navigation center, which has stalled because of additional funding needs.

He said the approach to homelessness is not a “one size fits all situation.”

“Yes, some need more accountability for their behaviors, and we must engage them and not enable them,” he said.

He said some people who are homeless need access to in-patient mental health services. And others need short-term, affordable housing units “until they can get back on their feet.”

The city last week broke ground on Yaquina Hall, soon to be 52 affordable apartments that will be managed by the Salem Housing Authority.

Police

Bennett said the Salem Police Department has “epitomized doing more with less.”

He pointed to an assessment released last year that found the Salem Police Department has a lower staffing ratio than the average in the Pacific Northwest for cities of a similar size, 1.14 officers per 1,000 compared to 1.6.

That same assessment said the department needed better use its data to direct staffing, collaborate more with community groups, and complete a formal community-oriented policing plan to spend more time developing relationships with the community. The Salem Police Department released its strategic plan this week.

Bennett said there aren’t sufficient officers to focus on traffic and pedestrian safety.

He said last year there were seven motorcycle officers assigned to traffic enforcement, investigating 28 significant crashes in which half had fatalities.

“It’s clear that we need to add at least, at least, 60 new officers to our force to meet the demands of a city of nearly 178,000 people,” he said.

Fire

Bennett said last year was the busiest in the Salem Fire Department’s 160-year-history. Call volumes increased by nearly 17%, adding up to 30,232 calls for service.

While Salem’s population has increased 13.5% since 2010, he said, the fire department’s call volumes have increased by 80% in that same period.

“Put very simply, we need more firefighter-EMTs to keep up with the increasing demands for service. This is a core service that is only going to get more important as our population continues to age,” Bennett said.

He said the city needed to add two new fire stations to meet a city council goal of firefighters arriving to an emergency within 5 ½ minutes. That amounts to 10 new engine companies and 111 new firefighters at an ongoing cost of $25 million.

“That’s where the community has to stand up and say, ‘I want it or I don’t want it.’ I’ll take my chances,” he said.

Economy

Bennett said there are investments in downtown underway totaling $90 million. He listed the Hilton hotel, apartments going in the former Nordstrom building, new retail space in the former JCPenney and new apartments on Northeast Broadway Street

Bennett said since July, the city has approved $1.5 million in grants in the Riverfront Downtown, West Salem and North Gateway Urban Renewal Areas for projects totaling $3.6 million.

He said the city saw a stall in new multi-family housing in the first several months of the fiscal year, which starts in July.

Bennett said there were permits issued for four apartment complexes, totaling 514 apartments.

The city issued 453 single family and duplex permits, 396 for multi-family projects, 19 for accessory dwelling units and 92 for commercial projects. Those total 959 projects permitted with a value of $585 million, he said.

Public works

Bennett said it was a “red-letter year” for the city’s public works department.

A year ago, an ice storm shut down the city with many going without power for days.

 “In the case of the Bennett house, it was almost two weeks,” he said.

He said it was the most tree damage the city had seen since Columbus Day in 1964. Damages cost $6.75 million, with $2.5 million covered by insurance and $3.2 million covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

City crews removed 18,000 tons of trees and debris during the first 45 days cleaning up.

He also highlighted last year’s Ironman triathlon that drew more than 7,000 people to Salem.

He said the event will be held in Salem again this year.

Pitch and an ask

He said writing the annual address was one of the most difficult things he does as a mayor.

Bennett closed with a pitch about the upcoming bond measure, where the city is asking voters to approve a $300 million bond to pay for fire equipment, street and sidewalk improvements and park investments, among others.

 "We are going to continue to grow. If we are going to continue to meet the safety needs of our residents – and we must. And if we are going to continue to be the most livable city in Oregon, and I hope you all agree with me, we are. I hope you will look closely at this, share your thoughts with us,” he said.

Bennett closed his speech by thanking the community for his 15 years as a city councilor and mayor.

He reminisced on being a city hall reporter for the now-defunct Capital Journal in the 1970s.

“And this right here, what I’m doing right now, is what I wanted to do and I’m so thrilled that I got to do it,” he said. 

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

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