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City will study levy failure

The city of West Linn is likely to ask voters again to renew a levy to support the police department.

At a worksession Monday night, the city council asked city staff to spend up to $15,000 to ask citizens why they voted against the levy in November.

Armed with that knowledge, the council intends, at a special meeting Dec. 18, to reach a decision about its next step.

The Nov. 7 general election levy request, which would have generated about $2.4 million per year for five years, failed by 628 votes (5,085 in favor and 5,713 against).

Councilors now have the option of going to a May or March special election and asking voters either for a renewal of the current 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation or a new levy of 93 cents per $1,000. They could also ask for 99 cents per $1,000, which was the amount turned down in the Nov. 7 election.

Other options the council discussed Monday include reducing services citywide in order to save enough money to preserve important police services. They also considered asking voters to approve three separate levies (libraries, parks and police) and conducting a survey to determine why the recent levy request failed.

Monday night's consensus went with the latter.

Prior to that consensus, however, City Manager Chris Jordan told the council he prefers what he called a 'three-pronged approach to the failure of the police levy.'

That approach includes immediately cutting the cost of West Linn government, across-the-board budget cuts for the next fiscal year and going back to the voters for approval of a five-year levy.

Jordan expects that immediate cost cuts, delayed hirings and postponed expenses in nearly all departments might save about $500,000 'to help cushion the blow for next year,' he said.

Police Chief Terry Timeus said he understands why the council wants more information before reaching a decision.

They want to know if the cause of a failed measure to pay for the continuing services of 12 officers was backlash over mismanagement of city funds in years past or mismanagement of the police department a couple of years ago or just the idea of raising taxes.

Timeus has talked with voters who were confused about the reason for the recent levy request, he said after Monday's council meeting. Some people thought they were adding 12 officers, he said, but the department is not adding officers.

Police supervisors are just trying to maintain at least a minimum of three officers on the streets around the clock seven days a week.

But if the city should not have the funding it has had from the levy and those 12 officers are not on the force, the 14 remaining officers cannot cover the city 24-7 because illness, vacations and training temporarily take some of them away from patrol duties.

'Police officers are expected to take a certain amount of risk to perform their duties,' Timeus said after Monday's meeting. 'The people (taxpayers) who pay our salaries don't want to take those risks - nor should they have to.'

And that's the basic reason Timeus believes taxpayers should decide to keep police services at their current levels.

If the force is reduced, calls will be handled on a priority basis, and Timeus knows that will impact a lot of people.

'If your car is stolen, there's nothing more important than our (immediate) investigation and your car being recovered,' he said. 'Yet if somebody's having a fight with their significant other, that takes priority over your stolen car.'

Calls for police services would be prioritized, and only high priority calls would be answered as soon as possible. Officers are legally required to investigate domestic violence and child abuse calls. By year's end, Timeus said, there will have been 100 child abuse cases this year alone, requiring a lot of officer time.

Should all 12 officers not be funded, Timeus said police services would be decimated, including the loss of detectives, code enforcement, animal control and investigations that extend outside of West Linn such as identity theft. Response time, the chief told the council, also would be significantly lengthened from the current three to five minutes to as much as an hour.

Council President Scott Burgess said he was more interested in why voters turned down the levy measure.

Police Advisory Committee Chair Harvey Schultz said his personal observation was that the vote was a backlash from the former finance director's theft of $1.4 million, but he acknowledged that it could have been a combination of that and mismanagement (two or three years ago) of the police department.

'But a lot of people out there,' Schultz told the council, 'when it's more money, they automatically vote no.'

Another challenge is the fact that in a special election the double-majority rule applies; meaning that to be approved a measure must gain more than 50 percent of voters' affirmative votes as well as more than 50 percent of voters must turn in ballots.

In the history of that rule in West Linn, 50-percent voter turnout in special elections hasn't happened, ranging from 25.9 percent in March of this year to 47.6 percent in March 2002. May primaries fared a little better, with turnout ranging from 22.7 percent in May 2005 to 54.3 percent in May 2000.

When the current levy was approved in May 2002, the turnout was 53.4 percent.

The two choices for elections this year are March 13 and May 15. But time is short to inform the public about the need for police support. If the March election is the target, Jordan said, the council would have to approve that plan by Monday - or at the outside Dec. 18. If the council chooses to enter both elections, the proposal for the May ballot must reach the elections department before the result of the March election is known.

Whatever decision is reached Dec. 18 and no matter which election date is chosen, the police department - currently missing four officers - has sufficient funding to maintain all services until June 30, 2007.

After that, it's anybody's guess.

'It's a balancing act to decide which services to cut and which services to keep,' Timeus said, 'when the ultimate goal is safety and livability for all who live here.'