Public safety levy would replace monthly fee

Eighteen months ago, when the city of Gresham imposed a flat monthly fee to help fund police, fire and parks departments, the main thing city leaders heard from residents was that they wanted a proposal to vote on when the fee expired.

That time has come. The flat tax of $7.50 per person expires June 30, and a property tax increase appears on the May 20 ballot.

Gresham has no choice but to augment its budget for police, fire and parks because its property tax rate is one of the lowest in the state, locked in because of state tax measures, at $3.61 per $1,000 of assessed value.

That rate can’t be raised, but growth pressures on the city add up and resources are stretched to the limit, Mayor Shane Bemis said.

Portland’s property tax rate is about twice that of Gresham’s, but Gresham is getting Portland-size problems. With Gresham’s population on the rise and drastic cuts to city staff the last few years, without the flat tax the city would lose the equivalent of about 20 police officers, two fire stations and about a third of the parks maintenance crew, according to the city website. Gresham is already among the lowest cities in police per capita.

Other cities have faced the same problems as Gresham, though, so why is the city at such a critical juncture?

“Everything for us is the permanent rate at $3.61 per $1,000,” Bemis said, and the city hasn’t seen a property tax increase in 20 years.

“In between 1993, and fast forward to now, almost every single community in the Portland region has voted increases except Gresham,” he said.

Bemis took office in 2007 and said he worked all that year on a measure for voter approval that would have funded 30 new police officers. But it was the onset of the recession, and the measure was narrowly defeated.

The new tax would help maintain fire and police response times, keep all fire stations open, aid enforcement and prevention of gang activity, address crimes that impact neighborhood livability and maintain city parks, he said.

The current flat rate of $7.50 raises about $5 million per year, Chambers said, while the proposed five-year levy, at $1.25 per $1,000 of taxable assess value of property, will bring in about $5.4 million. The current tax averages at about $90 per household, and the new levy averages to about $114 for the average single-family home.

The levy will be tax deductible for homeowners, Chambers said, while the flat tax is not.

Chambers said 95 percent of the levy will go to police and fire, and 5 percent will go to parks.

The passing of the flat tax back in 2012 was the result of the Gresham City Council’s Long Term Revenue Roadmap, which aimed to stabilize funding for police, fire and parks that had been “threatened and contained since the adoption of Oregon’s property tax reform measures in the 1990s,” according to a city staff report for the council’s Feb. 18 meeting, when the council voted to approve the property levy measure for the ballot.

The report goes on to state what staff found during numerous public meetings on the flat tax in 2012, that many people wanted any fees to be capped and temporary, and were “interested in seeing a more conventional tool, such as a property tax levy, as an alternative.”

The council passed the flat tax in December 2012 and instructed staff to come back with a plan for a more permanent solution, and after more public outreach and financial analysis, council directed staff to put the current levy on the ballot.

In its report, staff concluded:

“Finding a successful replacement revenue mechanism for the expiring fee is critical to maintaining Gresham’s public safety services and livability,” it states. “Successful approval of a 5-year property tax levy would add enhanced financial stability to critical city services...”

If approved by voters, at the end of five years the measure would go up again for voter approval, but Bemis hopes it passes. Here’s how he put it in his State of the City address Feb. 12.

“Gresham has arrived at the most important defining moment of our era,” Bemis said. “We are unwilling to watch other areas of the region push gang activity and poverty our direction, without assembling the necessary tools to address those issues. Generations before us have pulled together as a community to build this city, and our time has now come to make our own investments.”

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