Mayor Shane Bemis highlighted the city of Gresham's tight budget in his 2012 state of the city address, saying that while the city has continued to deliver a high level of service through budget cuts, the trend isn't sustainable.

'One way or another, we're going to have to get to a place where we're comfortable with coming up with a few dollars more per month for the community we enjoy,' Bemis, in his second four-year term, told a crowd at City Hall on Wednesday, March 7.

'It's not about achieving philosophical efficiencies,' he said. 'It's a math problem that eventually results in a place we would not want to live.'

Low revenue

The mayor delivered the same message last year, he said. The city cut 5 percent, more than $18 million, from its total budget. The general fund, around $52 million in property taxes supporting primarily the police and fire departments, has shrunk 18 percent over five years as the city cut the number of employees from 300 to 246. Meanwhile, the population they serve has grown 7 percent, topping 105,000.

Bemis said currently each Gresham household pays on average $60 monthly for general fund services.

'We're not talking about theoretical public employees or faceless bureaucrats; we're talking about calling 9-1-1 and actually having someone show up to stop a home invader, administer lifesaving CPR or save lives and property from fire,' Bemis said.

He highlighted accomplishments in the police and fire departments - firefighters who delivered bags of wood pellets for an old woman's woodstove, and police who helped people who were stuck on the road during January's snowstorm chain up their tires and even scrape their windows.

'I am continually humbled by the devotion of these individuals to deliver high-quality services to our residents,' Bemis said, noting that union employees went without cost-of-living increases in the current budget, and management has gone without for two years. The mayor and councilor positions are unpaid.

Bemis attributed declining property tax revenue to the state's financial structure, which caps the amount of revenue that can go to a particular service. He has worked to change taxation through the League of Oregon Cities, a lobby that represents municipalities.

Practical impact

To illustrate the effect of operating at critically low revenue levels, Bemis read a letter from Southeast Gresham resident Grace McClellan, 8 years old and in the second grade, who suggested adding play equipment to Thom Park.

'I think it is a good idea because it would make our neighborhood better, and it would give them an opportunity for kids to get more exercise,' wrote McClellan, who was in the audience.

She enclosed a hand-drawn picture - instructions, she wrote - of the proposed equipment. 'It needs to be big,' McClellan specified at the top of the drawing.

Budget cuts have eliminated parks employees, Bemis said. The play equipment McClellan requested would cost about $50,000. 'For perspective, there are just under 50,000 households in Gresham, meaning we could build it for about $1 a family,' he said.

'We are very aware that many of our households are in a tough spot …' Bemis said. 'Yet some things cost money because they're worth it.'

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