NORTH BEND — North Bend residents are in a fight over whether or not to keep the current public safety fee.
And the result could drastically affect local emergency services.
As ballots are mailed out this week, residents will vote on Measure 6-177, which asks, “Shall the Public Safety fee be reduced from $30 to no more than $15, with voter approval for future increases?”
The measure’s summary describes a “yes” vote as reducing public safety funding by $785,000, resulting in the elimination of police services from 11 p.m.-7 a.m.
A “yes” vote also would reduce detective staffing by 50 percent, and eliminate police responses to “many civil and criminal occurrences such as non-injury traffic crashes, trespass with no other crime, thefts under $25 and medical calls.”
Both the increase in the fee, which is generated by property taxes, and the consequences of undoing it are spurring a public outcry.
North Bend City Manager Terence O’Connor looked back at how the city found itself in such a position, which began almost 30 years ago with Ballot Measure 5. That measure limited property tax increases to no more than 3 percent.
It was amended two years later, in 1997, ensuring a property’s assessed value would never be increased by the assessor by more than 3 percent in a calendar year.
“That was frozen, and the assessment would stay at whatever the value of your house was,” O’Connor said, adding that when a house is sold, it won’t reset the value of the home. “When sold, the person who bought the house paid more than it was assessed at, and only pays what the assessed value is for taxes.”
For a city like North Bend, which has just 4,500 parcels of land and is bordered on three sides by water, that arrangement poses a problem. “Unless it’s brand-new housing, the value of the home is only what the 3 percent might have been over the period of time the house existed,” O’Connor said.
“In North Bend … the only chance to get new money is through growth, but if you don’t have land to grow on, this whole issue of not having sufficient revenue comes home to roost.”
Keeping up with expenses
O’Connor said Measure 5 limited the dollars available to local governments at the county and city levels. Meanwhile, these entities still had to account for their cost increases.
“Health insurance is going around double-digit increases, fuel goes up and down but most times goes up, so the dollars afforded to local governments haven’t caught up to expenses,” he said.
O’Connor said he audited 20 years’ worth of the city’s money stream. Over that time, he said, in most years it cost more to run the city than the municipality received in revenue.
“The way we made that work is, we slowly ate away at any reserves we had,” he said.
“Twenty years later, the needs of the community have increased. We’re short of revenue, which is why you start seeing in a lot of communities like ours (more) fees.”
Cutting police and fire services
If the fee were to be $15, O’Connor said it would result in a reduction of $785,000. If the city were to try saving money by, say, closing the public pool and community center, and abandoning maintenance on the city’s parks altogether, the savings would be around $500,000.
“But you’re still short,” he said. “So, do you eliminate public works or planning? Can’t do that, because (the State of) Oregon requires those.
“There’s not a lot of places you wind up cutting. Those are political decisions (that would have to be) made by the city council.”
Over the past 10 years, the North Bend Fire Department has lost three personnel. Two were cut after Southwest Oregon Regional Airport ended its contract with the department for providing fire security during takeoffs and landings.
Another position was lost after former Fire Chief Mark Meaker retired and training officer Jim Brown was elevated to head the department. “We didn’t backfill (Brown’s) job,” O’Connor said.
At the North Bend Police Department, four officers recently were added to help offset a growth in crime. But, “One of those things TV shows don’t usually show are cops doing reports or going to court,” O’Connor said.
"When you make an arrest, you go to trial and are taken out of the rotation … to do that, and cases still need attention. So folks are brought in overtime.”
Before adding to the police department staff, the city budgeted $250,000 to pay for such coverage. “It created a situation where employees were working six days a week and couldn’t take regular time off.
“So that doesn’t help with the wellbeing of the employee or their ability to want to come in if we call,” O’Connor said. “That’s why we added the four officers in the first place.”
O’Connor and the department took a longer-term view of the situation and presented the city council with a plan to stabilize “most revenues and expenditures for at least five years.”
That included increasing the public safety fee to $30, which was decided and enacted by the city council in April of 2019. The plan also included possibly renegotiating contracts with the police and fire departments, limiting cost-of-living increases, asking the departments to roll back the costs of medical insurance, as well as picking up a portion of the retirement the city traditionally paid for — which is 6 percent.
“If that comes to pass, for five years we’re secure that we have the financial wherewithal to continue to provide services being demanded by the public,” O’Connor said.
For more information about the fee and to review the city’s budget, visit www.northbendoregon.us.