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Police chief says status quo, much less progress, threatened by low tax rate

file photo

Of the Keizertimes

Keizer’s top cop is questioning whether the current city tax rate will be enough to meet growing police needs in the city.

Police Chief Marc Adams described the quandary thusly:

“I see a need for the department to grow staff-wise to be able to meet our mission,” Adams said. “But I also see a problem of, ‘How do you pay for it?’”

“With our low tax rate, it’s darn near impossible to operate a police department the city needs,” he added. “No matter how efficient you get, eventually you’re just not going to be able to do it.”

He noted Measure 5, passed in 1990, had a role in limiting the department’s revenue options. And he acknowledged that a public safety levy, in the midst of a recession, would be unpalatable.

“People can vote to go outside that tax rate, but in this economy right now no one can afford to do that,” Adams said. “That’s why we’re applying for every grant.”

And in an opinion piece by Councilor Jim Taylor published in last week’s Keizertimes, he wrote that “the city cannot continue to provide the same or more services without asking the citizens to pay more for them.

“We have now come to a point in our history that we are going to have to decide whether we want a lesser level of service, the same level, or more services,” wrote Taylor, who eventually voted to support the current budget after getting concessions like a hiring freeze on vacant positions paid for by the general fund. “The word ‘asking’ is key,” he added, indicating he would support an “advisory” vote for residents to tell city leaders what services they’re willing to do without.

While cuts totaling nearly a quarter-million dollars were made to balance this year’s city budget, the department has yet to be forced to lay off an officer.

It came up during budget discussions this year, specifically to cut an officer who was in training. Adams said doing so leaves a significant investment on the table.

But hiring is slow, and the department’s current budget is down nearly six percent – and will be down about 5 percent this coming fiscal year – from 2008-09 levels. The approved all-funds budget for police that year was $6,435,026, while the upcoming fiscal year is set at $6,119,000.

Where this will most likely be felt, he said, is “community-oriented policing” – a philosophy that, boiled to its essence, puts police in would-be trouble spots before major crimes occur.”

Adams wants officers to be able to “meet with people and be pro-active (via) non-directed patrol time – time in their day when they’re not responding to calls.”

In order to have officers spend 30 minutes an hour of non-directed patrol time – his self-described “dream goal” – it would require seven officers per shift. At today’s staffing levels, five is the ceiling and three officers is often the norm.

Overall staffing, including non-sworn personnel is at 48 in the upcoming budget. It was a 47-person staff in 2002-2003.

Represented officers received a 2 percent cost of living increase, but non-represented officers and staff did not get a raise this year.

And he said present funding levels means “we’re right on the edge of being able to providing reactionary policing, but we’re not able to do that problem-solving aspect of the community policing philosophy we used to be able to do. … It’s kind of sad.

“With reactionary policing, all you’re doing is this: A crime is committed, a police officer comes and makes a report, and sometimes we investigate it and arrest somebody.”

In addition, infill and large apartment complexes increase calls for service simply because you have more people. The city’s geographical relationship with Salem also plays a role.

“You’d like to think we’re just 36,000 people on an island, but we’re part of a metropolitan area of 300,000 and our crime problems are of a population of 300,000,” he said.

The unit facing the most dramatic cuts is the Community Response Unit (CRU), who is tasked in part with monitoring potential drug houses. When patrol falls short, officers from groups like the CRU are used to fill in the gaps.

“Drug house complaints and things we work aggressively go a little further down the list,” Adams said.

Since 2002-03, the department’s budget has grown by about $1.63 million. Materials and services – a fund that includes ongoing training for officers – is at its lowest funding level since 2005-06 in the upcoming budget.

“We can’t lay off staff and then take whatever they’re doing and give it to someone else because everyone already has a full plate,” Adams said.