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Citizens ask taxing questions during weekend forum

City officials may not have picked up any new votes for their public safety levy on Saturday, but they won points from at least one Forest Grove resident for showing up and taking some heat.

Jon Kaiser said he voted against the public safety levy in November and, after attending the morning forum on the city's finances, still plans to vote 'no' next month.

However, Kaiser said he appreciated the city's willingness to host the weekend presentation and may even apply for a slot on the city's budget advisory committee.

Kaiser was one of a handful of residents to show up for the open house aimed at explaining how the public safety levy fits into the city's larger budget.

The levy, passed in 2002, brings in about $1 million a year, but is set to expire next summer. In November, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to extend the levy for four years. Without it, city officials estimate that they will need to trim about $700,000 from next year's budget and even more in subsequent years.

During the question-and-answer segment of the 90-minute forum Saturday morning, Kaiser and a few others peppered city administrators with inquiries about everything from the cost of fire trucks to the city's contingency fund.

Susan Cole, the city's assistant budget director, ran through a series of charts and graphs showing various ways to look at the city budget.

She noted that the city gets money from a variety of sources. Residents pay for water and power through their monthly bills. The county directs state gas tax funds to street repair projects. People who use the pool and parks pay fees for many of those services. The library gets a big chunk of money from a voter-approved county tax.

But police and fire protection, she noted, are largely paid for through the general fund, which relies on property taxes, including levies like the one set to expire next year.

The current public safety levy pays for about 13 percent of the city's total discretionary spending.

If the levy is not replaced, city officials have said they may need to cut three to five police positions and two to four fire posts.

But those wouldn't be the only departments affected.

Cole said that although the current levy is dedicated to public safety, the city has decided that if the funds are not replaced, the cuts should be spread out.

'Imagine someone in your house has a part-time job, with all the money going to your grocery budget,' she said. 'If they lose their job, you wouldn't take it all out of food.'

Rather, she said, you'd probably also trim your entertainment budget, look at your vacation plans and find other ways to save.

That's why the city has identified several services that could be cut back if the levy fails.

The city aquatic center, for example, might close on weekends and limit evening hours. The city library would not expand its staff, even as it opens the remodeled west wing.

For Kaiser, who has lived in Forest Grove for six years, the question should be framed as a choice between services the city needs to provide and what services it wants to provide, if there is enough money.

'While library and aquatic center are nice 'wants,' they're still 'wants,'' said Kaiser, who said his father was a police officer.

Cole noted that even if you eliminated the library and parks budgets, there would be a shortfall in the public safety departments without the levy.

Part of the problem, city officials have explained, is that, for political reasons, the previous public safety levy was set at 99 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Although the cost of services was above that, the levy backers in 2002 wanted to keep the figure below $1 to make it more appealing to voters.

As a result, the city has been dipping into its reserve fund in recent years, a practice it would like to stop to ensure there are funds available should there be an unexpected capital cost, like the need for a new roof or heating system in a city building.

That's why the city is asking voters to support a new levy, which would raise the rate to $1.35 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Another problem, City Manager Michael Sykes explained, is that previous statewide citizens' initiatives have limited residential property tax growth to three percent annually.

That means that even though local property values have doubled in the past decade, the taxes coming to local governments, which are based on assessed value, have increased much more slowly.

The gap is particularly problematic in areas like Forest Grove, where growth puts more demands on city services.

Kaiser said he was glad to get answers to many of his questions, but isn't convinced the city has adequately explored other options to cutting services and employees should the levy fail.

'I didn't see any effort to find out where we could go without raising taxes,' he said.

Next week: Slicing the Forest Grove city budget.