'They need to pony up'
GOLD HILL — Budget Committee members are crying foul over recent discussions about a possible law enforcement levy or surcharge to pay for increased police protection that could already be covered by existing revenues.
A handful of Budget Committee members and some Gold Hill City Council members say that funding is already in place for police protection and that budget dollars should be wisely spent before the city asks for more from residents in this cash-strapped town.
Discussion began in December when City Manager Rick Hohnbaum suggested exploring the option of increasing police protection via a levy or surcharge.
The city has been without a police force since 2007, relying largely on "emergency only" protection provided to county residents, and a part-time code enforcement officer.
Council members hosted an open house in January, and with about four-dozen community members in attendance, Hohnbaum said, people said they wanted increased police presence.
While the idea of a levy was presented to those in attendance, some councilors voiced concern at the percentage of nonresidents in attendance.
Councilwoman Donna Silva, at the time, said she felt enough residents had not weighed in on the issue for the council to make an informed decision.
Initial estimates provided to the council in January showed that an additional $15 per month assessed on just over 500 households would generate about $100,000 annually. Discussions also explored the options of a public service district to incorporate outlying properties for additional funding.
Longtime budget committee member Christine Alford voiced frustration that additional funding was being discussed while existing dollars are "not being spent responsibly."
"We already have money in the budget for law enforcement. The city could easily pay for law enforcement without a single tax added," Alford said, noting that in addition to property tax revenues, some $36,000 from marijuana dispensary taxes would be earmarked for public safety.
Current property tax revenues provide about $114,000 annually for law enforcement, of which $35,000 pays for the community service officer.
"I hear that the people want increased law enforcement, and I don't blame them. There just needs to be some serious number-crunching by the council to fund it out of the general fund like we always have," Alford said.
"They need to pony up what they've got before they ask for more."
Alford said she agreed that increased police presence was warranted. "It is absolutely irresponsible to go another year without more law enforcement than we have right now," she said.
"There definitely has been an increase in the sleaze factor the last few years. There is a bad element moving in. I just want the discussion of funding law enforcement to go down before the budget discussion starts."
Mayor Jan Fish and councilor Gus Wolf did not return calls by the Mail Tribune. Wolf stated at a previous council meeting that he favored the levy option.
Silva said she favored doing whatever citizens wanted as long as enough feedback was collected to make the best decision for the town. Councilwoman Chris Stanley said she agreed with Alford that the city could carefully evaluate where existing budget dollars were going, including funds from a marijuana dispensary tax, before asking citizens to pay more.
"My feeling is that we really need to go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb and see where we can find money, because I know there's money there," Stanley said.
Hohnbaum said this week that the council felt that enough community members had not given input to determine whether a levy should be put on the May or November ballots.
Hohnbaum said councilors have suggested everything from additional open houses and a door-to-door survey to adding a surcharge to utility bills.
Last budget year, the city started with $111,114 in the public safety fund and spent only $8,396, Hohnbaum said.
Budget Committee member Deb West said she had a list of concerns with how money was being spent at City Hall.
"I get a bad, bad sense that the budget has been enormously jacked around. We have had money sitting in the general fund all this time for law enforcement, just like we always had," West said.
"There is no reason to put a levy out there before we figure out where the money is already going. A levy would really be out of place at this point in time when our budget is not even in order," she said. "I don't know any Budget Committee member in their right mind who would favor milking citizens for any more money, especially when existing funds are being mishandled or misused."
Hohnbaum said he was given direction by the council to research having a community survey done and had requested estimates from a survey agency.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com