SWEET HOME — Although phrased in several ways Tuesday night, the message from several residents to the Sweet Home City Council was clear: Leave levies supporting the Police Department and public library alone, or face possible backlash at the polls in two years.
The comments were made during a public hearing for the proposed 2019-20 budget, which was previously approved by the city’s Budget Committee. The budget has to be adopted by the council no later than June 30.
City Manager Ray Towry and Finance Director Brandon Neish have proposed an internal services fund that would require city departments to help shoulder the costs of overall administration and financial services.
Neish said the system isn't new to Sweet Home. In fact, it was implemented several times in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But opponents of the proposal say that Sweet Home voters have supported levies for public safety and the library since the 1980s, when those departments were pulled out of the general fund due to a statewide recession based on a collapse of the timber industry.
They said that support includes providing 100% of the tax rate — $7.85 per $1,000 property tax valuation for the Police Department and $1.17 for the library — minus statewide tax compression.
The plan is to move $180,000 from the public safety levy and $47,000 from the library into the internal services fund, in part to offset a projected beginning fund balance deficit of $207,000 by 2022, and as much as $519,000 in 2023.
Members of the Budget Committee and city staff emphasized several times that items proposed by Police Chief Jeff Lynn and Library Director Rose Peda have been included in the new budget, so transferring the funds would not impede their current operations.
But members of the public said the issue is a matter of trust and perception. And, they added, if the city wanted to move forward with the internal services fund, it shouldn't do so in the middle of a levy cycle. Instead, it should use the next two years, before the levies are up for consideration, to educate the public and then include information on the next ballot, so voters know what they're voting on, several people said.
Former Mayor Dave Holley, who chaired the Budget Committee, said he originally was against the internal services fund, but, after more study, realized it could help maintain vital services and make needed improvements to parks.
“Sweet Home has a pitifully low tax base,” he said.
Holley further explained how taxes generated for the general fund weren’t enough to cover even basic administrative personnel costs. Also, the city has to have an adequate beginning fund balance on July 1 — the start of the new fiscal year — to last until November, when annual property tax payments begin coming in.
Councilor Susan Coleman called administration the “quiet expense” but noted it was necessary to maintain city government.
“Without overall administration, the Police Department and library couldn’t operate,” she said.
Councilor Dave Trask said that operating the city is similar to operating a business.
“There are costs to running a business,” he said. “This isn’t anywhere close to a scheme. We gave Chief Lynn and Rose everything they asked for in their budget proposals.”
He encouraged people to look at progress made at local parks as an example of the city moving forward with its livability goals.
It takes money to reach those goals, he said.
Former Public Works Director Mike Adams encouraged the council to “get out in front of this and explain the concept to the public.”
Former Police Chief Robert Burford supported Adams’ thoughts, noting the transfers don’t have to happen right now.
“You have two years until the levies are up,” he said. “I encourage you to put out a lot of information before then. You should not take this money in the middle of the levy.”
Mayor Greg Mahler said the council would take Tuesday’s comments into consideration before adopting the budget in coming weeks.