In elections, usually even the most unqualified and unknown candidate gets 30 to 40% of the vote.
So when the payroll tax got a "Yes" from only 18% of Salem voters in yesterday's election, they weren't just sending a message. They were screaming it from the rooftops. Both in the Marion County part of Salem and the Polk County part in west Salem (where just 16% said "Yes").
With the election over, and the certainty that remaining ballots to be counted won't appreciably change the outcome, we enter the what now? phase.
A Salem Reporter story about the payroll tax defeat indicates that at the moment, City officials seem to be repeating the same ideas and policies that led up to the defeat.
The city is planning to convene a revenue task force to seek additional options for bringing in money for city services. The city’s last revenue task force met in 2018, and their recommendations included adding the operations fee to utility bills and implementing a payroll tax.
...Without the $27 million a year estimated from the payroll tax, the city plans to cut spending on services to preserve its financial reserves. Their baseline proposal for cuts over the next five years, which councilors will continue to discuss, includes pulling funding from homeless shelters, closing the West Salem Branch of the library, reducing park maintenance, cutting specialized police teams and closing a fire station.
...“We just can’t make cuts as drastic as will be necessary without the revenue, so we’ve got to come up with a new plan,” [Mayor] Hoy said, adding that nothing is off the table when it comes to revenue options, including a payroll tax in a different form. He said the city council is going to take lessons from this election before making a new decision.
I heartily agree with Mayor Hoy that the city council should learn lessons from the election. However, I'd like city officials to be as expansive as possible in that exercise.
The most important thing they can do is shine a spotlight not on voters or on opponents of the payroll tax, but on themselves. Salem's Angry Owl had this to say in two tweets (I refuse to call it an X post, even though Twitter and Tweets are no more).
Was it City Manager Stahley who recommended the payroll tax? Was it someone else in the City Manager's office? Whoever it was, that person (or people) needs some urgent reeducation about how to deal with a City of Salem budget problem. Because the payroll tax proposal was a debacle that calls to mind the famous SNAFU acronym.
Situation normal: all fucked up.
Now, depending on someone's point of view toward City Council goings on, there's room for debate about the extent to which the fuck up on the payroll tax reflects the normal situation at City Hall.My perspective is that it's quite common, which is why I'm advocating for a No More Business As Usual approach to the what now? question.
I say this because it's going to be temping for city staff, the mayor, and city council to take a technocratic approach where what's talked about is different revenue sources and different budget cuts, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the way city government typically functions.
As Angry Owl said, the mayor and city council are volunteers. They have no staff of their own. They need to cram in their governmental duties along with their usual job, family life, and such. This makes them dependent on City of Salem staff for just about everything.
Those staff may be called public servants, but often they serve the bureaucracy to which they belong more than the public. The payroll tax brought this out clearly. With the strong resistance both to the tax itself and to it being imposed without a vote of the people, it should have been obvious that the payroll tax was almost certainly doomed.
Yet the reaction of city officials was along the lines of: The public doesn't understand the budget as clearly as we do, so we just need to explain things to them; then they'll come around to our way of seeing things, which obviously is the correct way.
There's a lot of arrogance and condescension in this perspective. That irritated people.
Rather than viewing criticism of the payroll tax and the initial choice to not refer it to voters (until they were forced to by a petition referendum) as an opportunity to rethink this revenue option, city officials and a 5-4 majority on the city council decided to go full steam ahead and damn the torpedo of it being voted down -- which it was, big time.
Now, I realize that the chance of city officials using the defeat of the payroll tax to rethink how they engage with the public and involve citizens in policy decisions is small, minuscule even. And maybe they're right. Perhaps some tweaks to the tax and a better marketing campaign is all that's needed.
I simply see a bigger problem here. This debacle has led to a marked decline in public trust toward city officials, the mayor, and city council. Restoring that trust should be Job #1, not appointing a new revenue committee to come up with other revenue options.
The City of Salem doesn't need to do everything differently. But any observer of City Hall knows that they need to do lots of things differently. The payroll tax just made that more obvious, because the need has always been there.