Future not so rosy

At a work session this week, the Keizer city councilors received grim news from City Manager Chris Eppley and Tim Wood, the city’s finance director: there is no money now or in the forseeable future to add desired positions.

Revenues from taxes and franchise fees are estimated to be more than $100,000 less than forecast. The city is also had to absorb $130,000 in accrued time off payments for retiring city employees.

Add that bad news with the city’s ongoing Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and health insurance obligations and the city will have to live with a status quo budget for years to come unless some major decisions are made. Unfortunately, the decisions needed are not up to Keizer.  

Due to the voter approved Measure 50 in 1997, the city is locked into a tax rate of $2.08 per $1,000 valuation, the lowest of any city of similar size in Oregon. Keizer cannot change its tax rate unless state voters amend the state constitution. Voters show little appetite to see their property tax rate increase, regardless of where in Oregon they reside.

Keizer’s recently instituted parks fee and police fee were the city’s solution to a general budget that couldn’t keep up with expenditures. Those fees were established without the benefit of a public vote, though there were public hearings and town hall meetings explaining the need.

The city’s PERS obligation will continue to take a hefty percentage of Keizer’s general fund budget for decades to come. Oregon’s public employee retirement system is more than $20 billion in debt. Governmental agencies across the state won’t see relief until at least 2041; that’s more than 20 years more of PERS payments.

This all means that any new staff positions the city hopes to add will not be developed or filled.

At the work session this week city department heads presented the need to add six additional employees throughout the city, including a police officer. Finance director Tim Wood reported that adding those six positions would add $800,000 to the budget; that is money the city just doesn’t have now and doesn’t expect to have for years.

Some may say that the city must live within its means. That is impossible to do when expenditures continue to rise while revenues stay stagnant. Borrowing money is not an attractive option for the city. Establishing a third fee to pay for administrative costs would be a non-starter. There are few options and all would need to be sold to the public as a necessity to have the kind of town people want.

One option is to make cuts in city operations (which means lay-offs) at a time when department heads say they need more personnel. How loud would the outcry be from Keizer citizens if they were informed that fewer police patrols or decreased street maintenance would be the new normal? 

Another option would be to follow the example of other Oregon cities that augment their general funds with a five-year levy. A local option levy would require voter approval. This option for require an all-hands-on deck campaign to educate the electorate on the need.

We all want to maintain this city we call home. Though our budgetary hands are tied due to decisions made over the last decades, Keizer can continue to be a wonderful place if we agree we are all in this together. Tough times call for tough decisions and, sometimes, a little sacrifice.