Salem voters will soon select four new City Councilors who deserve the community’s respect for taking on unpaid jobs dealing with complex and controversial issues. Local government plays an essential role in people’s daily lives. It provides services we use every day ranging from police and fire protection to the provision of clean water, street maintenance, parks, libraries, and much more. Elected officials, commission volunteers, and professional staff plan urban development and enforce the codes we use to manage everyday life.
Most of the candidates’ campaign promises sound pretty much the same. All are for being practical, scrutinizing the budget, listening to constituents, and promoting transparency, but these assertions tell voters little. Who would claim the opposite?
Voters might discern differences among candidates when they discuss downtown parking, the proposed construction of a third bridge over the Willamette or the proposed renovation of City Hall. What we don’t hear much about, however, is how candidates propose to deal with Salem’s long-term problems. Due to cuts in federal funding and limits on the city’s ability to raise property taxes, service levels in every sphere have declined steadily since 1980. While the police and fire departments were relatively well protected, the city eventually had to mothball fire stations, public infrastructure – especially residential streets – is crumbling, and neighborhood services have been cut to the bone.
The solution is not more government thrift and urban growth. The population has more than doubled since 1980, yet Salem’s well-managed finances grow steadily more meager. The problem is systemic and can only be resolved by rethinking how the city gets its revenue. On this matter candidates are generally silent. Some may agree with or fear bucking Salem’s Chamber of Commerce, to which several, such as Jim Lewis, Daniel Benjamin, and Sherrone Blasi, owe most of their financing. Others may not grasp the depth of the problem, but they will soon get a rude awakening.
Candidates are quiet, too, about Salem’s response to the deepening environmental crisis. Of course, Salem cannot solve this emergency on its own, but as a contributor to the problem, it must also take more initiative in combating it. Voters might ask candidates why we have no environmental commission to guide policy. How do candidates intend to promote sustainable economic development that links housing, work, and transit in ways that will slow or remediate damage to the fragile environment?
Salem can maintain its public safety, fix its streets, build new parks, provide decent library service, and better plan its future growth if its leadership begins to think differently about its long-term problems. Regardless of who is elected next month, voters should demand nothing less.
Bill Smaldone is a former City Councilor from Ward 2 and currently chair of the Southeast Salem Neighborhood Association