SCHOOLS Officials want delay on city tax vote
One councilman noted that the voters wouldn't be fooled by a delay in the vote.
SALEM -- School system officials asked city council members Monday for an unfettered shot at the voters in May, requesting they hold off on plans to place a city tax initiative on the primary ballot.
Such a levy would compete for attention with the school system's own property tax renewal, jeopardizing both, school Superintendent David G. Brobeck said.
"Can we pass a renewal levy for the schools and simultaneously pass new money for the city?" he said. "Is it reasonable to believe that the community is ready and willing to support both issues in the same initial vote?"
Brobeck and Alice Gunning, the school system's treasurer, said the $2.1 million property tax renewal is desperately needed to stave off financial ruin. The five-year, 6.7-mill levy would continue an existing tax and would not cost property owners any additional money.
Brobeck said the school system has used a hiring freeze to trim $1.5 million from its budget over the last two school years and is looking for ways to slash an additional $1 million.
A loss of $2.1 million in revenue would decimate the schools and force a state takeover, Brobeck said.
Even now, Gunning added, the school system has frozen new purchases except for emergencies.
"I'm begging you," she said.
Council members, meeting as the Committee of the Whole, took no action. They scheduled another committee meeting for Monday at 6 p.m. to take up the matter. The full council must act at its Feb. 14 meeting in order to make the Feb. 16 deadline for placing a tax issue on the primary ballot.
Council members told Brobeck they would consider his request, but they added that they have their own budget problems.
City Councilman Fred Vogel said Salem has been slammed by the slumping manufacturing sector.
"We're faced with several dilemmas. We want Salem to be the place it's always been. Unfortunately, we've lost a lot o jobs," he said. "Everything you're going to see from now on is tax, tax, tax, because the monies aren't there."
Committee of the Whole Chairwoman Nancy Cope said Salem voters will pass judgment on other tax questions in May regardless of the council's decision. She said a proposal to replace a 0.75-mill property tax supporting parks with a 1-mill levy will appear on the ballot, and a 1 percent countywide sales tax likely will, as well.
"We can't all wait to pass taxes," she said. "There's never going to be a good time" to ask voters for more money.
Several council members after Monday's meeting expressed skepticism over the notion that voters are less likely to continue the schools tax if other levies appear on the ballot.
"Everyone needs money. It's tight everywhere," Councilman Steve Andres said. "You're not going to fool the taxpayer. The taxpayer is a smart person. ... I think voters will pick out what they want to vote for and what they don't."
Council members have discussed several possible tax increases, including a 7.2-mill property levy dedicated to fire services and income taxes of a half-percent or 1 percent.
A half-percent income tax would generate about $350,000 a year, Cope said. She said initial estimates held that a 7.2-mill tax, which could produce about $1.5 million, would cost $200 a year on a $100,000 house. She said officials later determined that a 6.7-mill tax would produce the same amount because of increases in property values.
Andres said Salem needs more money to repair crumbling streets and improve drainage. From 1997 through 2001, the city spent 40 percent of its revenue on such projects.
But tough times forced the council to divert more money to general government operations. Last year, capital projects got only 15 percent of tax revenues.
"We can't live with the 85-15 split very long," Andres said. "I get a lot of phone calls, mainly about the streets."
Joe Julian, the director of public service, told council members he has identified 24 roads in need of resurfacing, at a cost of $750,000.
"We have been putting a lot of patch in lately, and only because we have to," he said.
Before deciding whether to delay the city's needs in deference to the school system, Councilwoman Mary Lou Popa said she wanted to evaluate the schools' spending. At her request, Brobeck said he would produce a list of all nonteaching school system employees and their salaries.
"You have all these people. How much money are we spending on all them as opposed to all of the people who are teaching?" she said after the meeting.