Committee OKs St. Helens budget, adding back youth librarian
It took about four hours of lively discussion at City Hall Thursday evening, May 12, but the St. Helens Budget Committee, by a unanimous vote, approved a fiscal year 2022-23 budget worth $87.7 million.
The committee, made up of a mix of citizens and council members, resolved two issues that have sparked community interest.
The approved budget keeps a youth librarian position at St. Helens Public Library while also adding two new patrol officers for the police department.
Some members of the public and of the St. Helens City Council expressed concern over the recent departure of Gretchen Kolderup, the former youth librarian, who recently left to accept a similar position in Multnomah County.
Heading into the May 12 meeting, a proposed budget suggested not filling the children's librarian position, as a way to balance the budget while also accommodating two new officer positions in the St. Helens Police Department that police officials say are essential for public safety.
Before the final vote Tuesday evening, Mayor Rick Scholl expressed satisfaction with the library decision.
"We're looking forward to having our new library director," Scholl said. "She will actually have a budget to interview a youth librarian. So, it's good stuff. I'm proud of this."
Councilor Patrick Birkle was also pleased, saying, "The youth librarian is essential."
The nearly $88 million dollar budget is a big jump from last year, when the budget was approved at $48 million. But the increase is much smaller — close to $1 million — when only comparing the general fund allocations in the budget.
Finance director Matt Brown told the Spotlight ahead of the May 12 meeting, that "the reason we have such a big increase is because of the funds we have for the public safety facility, so we've already received $15 million in bonds."
Brown said budgeters used existing resources to pay for the youth librarian and two new officer positions at the same time.
Funding through the general fund was made possible by drawing on "contingency" funding, which is normally kept in reserve, Brown said, noting, "The general fund has a contingency amount every year for when things come up out of the blue."
Brown continued, "In the proposed budget, there was a little more than $1 million in this (contingency) line item. Funds were taken there to fund the youth librarian position for next year."
The addition of two police officers will help alleviate what has been described as a potential "crisis" in the police department.
Earlier this year, the general counsel for the Oregon State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, Daniel Thenell, addressed councilors, stating, "It is our concern that if we do not take action soon on police levels in the city of St. Helens, we're going to have a police crisis within 24 months."
Thenell, who is an attorney, told council members that the timeframe of getting a new hire up to speed as a police officer is two years. He also noted that there is a backlog of the ability of agencies across the state of Oregon to get officers through the police academy and certified as police officers.
The St. Helens Police Department is the only agency in Columbia County that provides 24-hour policing.
The budget will head to the City Council sometime in June, when a vote on whether to adopt the budget will be taken.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comments from St. Helens' finance director.
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