Facing cuts to police, fire budget, Gresham mulls fee hike
Gresham City Council is mulling doubling a monthly fee to reduce the amount of cuts facing public safety and parks while the city grapples with a $13.3 million funding gap through fiscal year 2020-21.
The solution pointed to by council during a policy meeting Tuesday, Sept. 22, is to increase the Police, Fire and Parks fee by $7.50, bringing forward a new total of $15 a month beginning Jan. 1, 2021. That solution would prevent massive cuts to all three departments.
"If we don't support these recommendations we not only see an immediate reduction in services, but we set up a lower long-term level of service," said Mayor Karylinn Echols. "It's not OK for me to reduce services to police, parks and fire more than they already have been."
Council only provided direction to Interim City Manager Eric Schmidt around the fee increase — nothing has been finalized at this point.
If the fee was left unchanged, it would have meant a tightening of the belt for both the Gresham Police Department and Gresham Fire & Emergency Services. The biggest impact would have been increased response times.
Police would have had to slash specialty teams, including investigations, traffic, neighborhood enforcement and mental health. The department would also have to reduce training for officers and conduct fewer community engagement events.
Fire was facing engine shutdowns and the elimination of special assignments like water rescue, urban search and rescue and SWAT medics. The department also would have left administration support roles unfilled and delayed capital expenses.
Finally, parks would have lost many programs and events. The city would have discontinued the Summer Kids in the Park program; eliminated the Spirit of Christmas tree lighting; removed the flower baskets in downtown Gresham; and deferred maintenance projects such as repairing the pathways in Main City Park.
While the proposed increase most likely will prevent many of these cuts from occurring, police, parks and fire will still face cuts due to the funding hole in the General Budget. Along with other internal services in City Hall, most departments will need to reduce services and staff. Those decisions have yet to be finalized.
While supportive of limiting the reduction in public safety and parks, council directed staff to investigate more stable funding options, as the community has long been opposed to the Police, Fire and Parks fee.
"When we first voted in the fee we received resistance because it was taxation without representation, and we heard that again when it was renewed," said Councilor David Widmark.
He suggested implementing a sunset mechanism with the fee in order to push colleagues to create a better source of long-term funding. Other councilors backed the idea and pointed to putting a public safety/parks levy before voters.
"Life as we know it in Gresham is going to change unless we get that levy passed," said Councilor Jerry Hinton. "My only regret is we didn't do this last year."
That is not the first time a levy has been suggested — Echols said voters turned it down on three occasions during her time in office.
"It pains me to think about where we are and how we got here — but we are moving in the right direction," Echols said.
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