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Voters shoot down St. Helens police levy

by: KATIE WILSON, SOUTH COUNTY SPOTLIGHT - SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON St. Helens Police Officers stop by at a fundraising event at the St. Helens Burgerville that will help kick-start the police department's upcoming annual Donut Day food and fundraiser event for the Columbia Pacific Food Bank. A tax option levy to bring police department staffing back to 2008 levels was rejected by voters on Nov. 7.St. Helens voters shot down a local police option levy this election which means the department will have to look elsewhere for funds if it hopes to boost staff numbers.

Over 2,000 ballots were cast on either side, with 57.4 percent voting against the levy and 42.5 percent voting in favor of it.

The levy would have taxed St. Helens property owners $1 per every $1,000 of assessed property value. It was intended to generate $3 million over the next five years, funding four new officer positions, a police evidence technician, and a records specialist. This would have brought staffing levels up from the current 16 sworn officers to the 20 the department employed in 2008, according to Lt. Terry Moss.

Since the levy did not pass and additional people were not hired, “we’re not losing anything and we’re not gaining anything,” said City Finance Director Jon Ellis about the failed levy. “It’s going to be held at neutral.”

St. Helens Police Chief Steve Salle isn’t sure yet if the department will try for another levy or go find another funding source. He said he would strongly resist any further employee cuts to the already understaffed department.

“The unknowns right now significantly outnumber the knowns,” Salle said. “We’ll do what we can with what we have.”

The levy ultimately came to the voters in the middle of a perfect storm of events, he said. Property bills were sent out right before the November election deadline; in October, Boise Inc. announced it would be shutting down its remaining paper machine in St. Helens, laying off 106 employees at the end of the year; and this year also saw a fiercely contested presidential race with the candidates’ central arguments revolving around the state of the economy.

“It put voters in the position where they were bombarded by economic news, whether good or bad,” Salle said. “I’m a taxpayer too... I understand the hesitancy to commit to more taxes and say, ‘Yeah, charge me more,’ when you have an option.”

But, he added, “I was disappointed, certainly. I see the things we’re not able to do on a daily basis.”

“I don’t actually know what the plan is,” he said, adding he will have a better idea in the coming months as the city begins planning for its next budget cycle.

At a recent budget briefing, Salle discovered the police department has been spending less money than anticipated this fiscal year. These savings will go into the city’s general fund along with savings from other city departments, Ellis said.