It’s a long-established fact that Gresham has the lowest property tax rate among the state’s largest cities. But that particular piece of information bears repeating in light of the City Council’s decision this week to levy a modest fee for the purpose of maintaining a mostly barebones level of city services.

At present, nearly all property taxes collected by the city of Gresham — 87 percent to be exact — are used to pay for police and fire services.

The value of those services is felt by residents each and every day. People throughout the Portland area have been impressed, for example, by the speed and professionalism of the Gresham Police Department as it has dealt with tragic situations in recent months. Gresham police solve crimes quickly — the recent case of homicide victim Whitney Heichel stands as a stark example — and along the way they refrain from grandstanding or from behavior that embarrasses the department.

Meanwhile, the value of the city fire department was on full display again last week when firefighters saved a man trapped behind a barred window inside his burning house. Keith Moore was within mere minutes of death when firefighters finally were able to put an air mask to his face and then use a saw to cut through bars that were blocking his escape.

Basics, not luxuries

This week, Moore happened to be at the meeting where city councilors voted in favor of the $7.50 per-month fee, which will be levied on the utility bills of every household and business in the city. He noted that closing a fire station was one option on the table if the fee had not been adopted.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said of the potential closure.

Moore has a unique perspective when it comes to paying an extra $90 per year to fund city services. Without those services, he would be dead. But every resident of the city likely understands that public safety is the primary function of government. And when a city is spending nine out of every 10 property tax dollars on police and fire, it’s hard to argue that its priorities are misplaced.

Other cities enjoy greater luxuries, and their residents pay a substantial premium for those privileges. The property tax rate in Portland is double that of Gresham. Eugene’s is nearly double, and Salem’s is 61 percent higher.

Plus, for every $1 in property taxes collected in Gresham by all governments, only 25 cents goes to the city for services. The remaining 75 cents funds everything from county jails to libraries to the Port of Portland.

We believe lower taxes make Gresham a more attractive place to live and do business, but there is a point where a community’s quality of life suffers from inadequate government resources.

Gresham has reached that point, with a tax rate that’s been frozen since 1997. As the cost of providing police and fire protection has naturally risen over the past 15 years, many other services — such as recreation programs — have been squeezed out. The economic malaise of the past few years also has depressed property values and tax collections, further decreasing the money available to keep the city functioning.

Proposal is well designed

Regardless of city government’s documented need, any plan for new funding must be designed with sensitivity to low-income residents and small businesses. On that score, we think city councilors have listened to constituents and altered the original proposal to satisfy concerns about affordability. They also have protected small businesses on a second piece of the plan — a one-time $2 surcharge on employees — by exempting a business’ first 50 workers.

The council also has ensured that apartment residents and those who live in rental housing — who traditionally don’t pay taxes — are contributing to fire and police services. As the fire that Moore narrowly survived illustrates, just one structure fire takes up the entire fire department’s resources, because the only fire truck and five of its six engines are required to respond to such fires. If two structure fires — and that includes apartment fires — occur at once, firefighters from other cities must pitch in.

Put simply, that means a longer response time and lives being held in the balance.

The fee and the surcharge may prove to be temporary if voters approve a public safety levy in May 2014. But until Gresham voters have a chance to make that decision, this stop-gap source of funding is necessary, not so much for the sake of city government but for the entire community’s well-being.

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