Police force struggles with budget cuts

St. Helens Police Chief Steve Salle is exploring a tax levy option to make up for losses in the city's police force due to budget cuts and declining tax revenue from devaluation of the city's industrial base.

The St. Helens City Council authorized Salle to explore an operational tax levy at its meeting earlier on Jan. 4, said city administrator Chad Olsen. Salle is expected to report his findings to the City Council on Feb. 4.

The report would include a recent Portland State University staffing study expected to provide data on what size a police force is needed to service a 13,000-population city, such as St. Helens.

Salle said it is too early to identify any specifics about a tax option, should the council even opt to place one on the ballot in November

Police department operations make up roughly 64 percent of general fund allocations, according to the city's adopted 2011-12 budget. At $2.5 million, it's the biggest draw on the $3.9 million general fund.

Salle said he's been researching the tax levy option prior to this most recent push, realizing it is one of the few options available to a city that has been in a steady downward financial spiral.

'The way that the tax codes are written in Oregon, the municipalities' doors are really closed unless you go into a local option or fees for service,' he said.

Constitutional tax restrictions framed in Oregon's Measure 50 prohibit municipalities from raising taxes beyond 3 percent of assessed value. What occurred this year across Columbia County has been an increasing number of properties with market values rated lower than assessed values. In such cases, the market value, and not assessed value, is used to calculate property taxes, resulting in lower property tax revenue for municipalities.

Also, passage of Measure 50 locked into place the permanent tax rate for municipalities. In St. Helens case, the permanent rate of $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed value among the lowest tax rates in the state, according to information compiled by the League of Oregon Cities.

Comparatively, Scappoose's permanent rate is $3.58 per $1,000.

Low permanent rates had been the case with many industrial- or timber-based municipalities that relied on tax proceeds from those property holdings. As the presence of those industries declined, however, revenue used to finance services also fell.

'With the constraints that the city has, especially with a tax rate so low and considering the size of the city, we're looking at different opportunities and ways to address it,' Olsen said.

An accelerated look at the possibility of attempting a tax option followed a midyear review of the city's financial picture, which in a general sense indicated continued financial challenge ahead.

Based on the city's multi-year budgetary projection, City Council is faced with the option of trimming 3, 5 or 7 percent from its budget in the next fiscal year.

In each scenario, the cuts would still result in dipping into the city's contingency fund, which is currently at $1.2 million. City policy is to hold the contingency to 10 percent of the general fund, or around $400,000. A 5 percent cut scenario played out over five years would hold that line, Olsen said.

The St. Helens Police Department is down to 16 officers at present from a high of 20 a few years earlier. Salle said the council recently approved hiring of an additional officer, but pointed to compromises that have damaged other services. For instance, he had to pull one officer off of the Columbia Enforcement Narcotics Team to work patrol, effectively cutting the city's presence on that agency in half at a time when most crime can be traced back to drug use. Also, stops for traffic violations are down about half, indicating officers have less time to devote to traffic patrols.

'It's a very clear indicator there are some things we're not able to do that we used to do,' he said.

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