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Police levy headed for WL ballot

City council could decide Aug. 14 what form the levy will take and how much it would cost taxpayers

When ballots arrive for the November 2006 general election, West Linn voters likely will be asked to pay more for police services.

The West Linn City Council is planning to take advantage of its last opportunity this year to ask for a new five-year levy without the challenge of a double-majority vote.

The current police levy of 75 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation expires June 30, 2007, and City Manager Chris Jordan told the council it must decide whether to place the levy on the ballot before the Sept. 7 deadline.

At issue is the fact that the levy is not providing enough funds to pay for what was intended, according to Police Chief Terry Timeus.

The three options Jordan suggested to the council include 1) renewing the levy at its current rate; 2) increasing the rate to add enhanced police services; or 3) transferring public safety funding strictly to the general fund and proposing a levy for other services such as parks or library, now funded through the general fund.

The city's budget committee initially suggested that the council consider abandoning the police levy to give it more stable funding.

Mayor Norm King asked Timeus if the police advisory board had weighed in on the topic. Timeus said the board had been informed of the three options, but no discussion has occurred.

King said it was too late to schedule meetings of advisory boards before the council takes action.

Councilor Jody Carson said there wasn't enough time (before the Sept. 7 filing deadline) to consider shifting from a police levy to some other form of funding.

But Council President Scott Burgess suggested there would be lots of issues on the ballot, and he doesn't want to radically change funding or add enhancements and as a result 'end up without a police department.'

'I think lots of things have occurred since the last levy,' he said, 'some positive, some negative … The issue of should police - a basic service - be funded out of a levy has been around for a long time. The question is: What's better?'

Discussing major changes in funding sources is not off Burgess' radar, but he said it might have to wait until next January.

The current police levy, which funds 12 officers and other capital expenses, provides approximately $1.7 million to city coffers - nearly one-half of the police department's budget.

The city operates on a general fund of roughly $6 million, which includes $1.9 million for additional police department expenses.

Not enough money ($300,000 shortfall) has been coming in from the levy, Timeus said. To balance the budget, some funds have been transferred from the general fund and some vacant positions have not been filled.

'We were able to balance,' Timeus said, 'but the levy wasn't paying for what it was intended to pay for.'

Worksession in the works

At King's request, Jordan said the administration would return to a future worksession with a history of police funding and a forecast for the police department in relation to the levy, with detailed information on options to consider.

'We'll put together for you a five-year history of police services that shows the funding sources and expenses associated with police over the past five years,' Jordan told the council, which met in worksession July 17 without two of its members.

'Then we'll go forward through the next five or maybe six years … (with information) that shows current services with those costs, and what the gap is between current revenue and those expenses - and what potential enhancements could be included and the costs associated with those.'

Burgess said he would be actively promoting whatever option the council chooses, and wants the council to advocate for services that he believes are crucial for a city.

'(Police) is an important service,' he said, 'and I don't think we want to let it ride, because there have been some issues that we've been involved in that I think are going to make it hard to pass - or at least people are going to be questioning.'

In a telephone interview a week after the worksession, Burgess identified concerns that he believes some voters might still have with administration of the city.

'We've had lots of problems with the police department that we dealt with,' he said, 'and I think we need to let folks know that we have a good police chief and the department is in better shape than it was.

'Another issue is the general financial condition of the city … If people are voting no on the levy because they're concerned about the embezzlement or not funding the water system adequately, or whatever, and making a statement through their ballot not related to the police department, I think we need to (advocate) for the levy.'

Burgess also mentioned some funds that had been talked about a couple of years ago - nearly $780,000 that had been in the general fund budget to pay part of the cost of fire protection. When West Linn was annexed to the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue District, some people thought that money should go to public safety, thus reducing the police levy.

'We didn't have that money,' Burgess said, 'because the budget we had a year ago appeared to be smoke and mirrors. We weren't getting the correct information.'

The police levy question, with its associated resolution for a ballot measure, is likely to appear on the council's Aug. 14 agenda for final discussion and vote.

Sept. 7 is the ballot-filing deadline, Jordan said, and Aug. 14 is the only regular council meeting already scheduled before Sept. 7.