KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark is interested in setting the stage for a larger conversation about increasing the city’s budget.

While the specter of increased taxes or, in Keizer’s case, fees rankles those steadfastly opposed to the notion, the reality is that if the city residents want anything more than status quo services, they’re going to have to pay for it.

“We have to have a grown-up conversation about money. Police and parks are the two things people talk about most and we don’t have the money for increased personnel or improvements,” Clark said. “We need to talk about what dollars we have, how we’re getting them and the options for making more available.”

Keizer’s general fund is the source for money spent on public safety and park services, but it’s not the honey pot one might think. Tim Wood, Keizer’s finance director, said the city stands to collect about $4.8 million in property taxes this year based on a $2.08 per $1,000 of assessed value rate. While that seems like a hefty sum, consider that police services alone cost more than $5.1 million during the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Moreover, Keizer receives a token amount – 13 cents – of each dollar residents pay in property taxes. The Salem-Keizer School District receives the lion’s share of money collected, 40 cents on the dollar, and another 19 cents per dollar goes to Marion County. The city of Keizer is fourth in line after either of the two fire districts that serve city residents.

“People have to understand that our tax rate is artificially low,” Clark said. “There are other cities doing more, but look at the property taxes those other places are paying. In other cities of this size, residents are paying between $4 and $6 per thousand.”

Keizer’s current tax rate was set in 1996, and locked in when Oregon voters approved Measure 50, which capped property tax assessments, in May 1997. Measure 50’s passage quite literally meant the city could no longer increase its budget through raising property tax levels, and leaves essentially only two options on the table: local option levies that would have to be renewed periodically or a fee added to utility bills.

Clark sees a fee as the most viable of the two, but she wants residents to have a clear view of what precisely such a fee would pay for. While the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board is already looking at options for creating a dedicated parks fund to pay for parks improvements, Clark is preparing to tackle the public safety side of the conversation, and that will involve tough questions and detailed planning and analysis.

“If we want to have more police, we need to decide what those officers are going to do and need as far as support,” Clark said. “Do we need more school resource officers? Are we asking for more traffic enforcement? Are we asking for patrol? And, if you’re asking for another patrol officer, you’re going to need another detective. Are we talking about more officers for one shift, two shifts or all three? Do we have enough support staff to cover the extra evidence and paperwork generated by new police positions?”

To kickstart the discussion, Clark has asked city staff to be prepared to answer questions regarding the general fund at the city council’s Aug. 8 work session.

“One of our goals as a council was to engage the residents of the city more and each of the councilors has taken up a piece of that,” Clark said. “I want us all to be working from the same basis of good information as we start talking with our different social circles. We can also do town halls, visit neighborhood and homeowners associations, church groups and other events to spread the word.”

The city charter grants the city council the power to establish fees, but Clark wants to use it.

“If we hear the residents just want us to get it done, we can do that, but we can also take it to the ballot,” Clark said. “I would ask that people take the time to listen, learn and share their ideas. It’s a decision that we need to make as a community.”