Cops need a boost that voters can — and should — give

If the City Council approves and places a request on the May 16 ballot for a rate-based levy to continue funding law enforcement, voters should support it.

We say that, presuming the request is reasonable, and we believe it will be.

Sweet Home Police Department has handled an increasing number of calls over the last two years, exceeding 9,000 calls in 2005. Yet the force the department has to handle that load is essentially the same size it has been since the early 1990s.

Linn County has used a rate-based levy for years, but Sweet Home has consistently used a fixed-dollar levy to fund its police. Under a fixed-dollar approach to funding, the city might request $1 million per year, and that tax revenue would not change up or down based on changes in property values. Problem is, it’s fixed and it’s no longer adequate.

Wisely, Police Chief Bob Burford will request abandoning that in favor of a rate-based levy.

The rate-based levy would allow the city to collect more revenues from the expected growth, in the form of new construction, that Sweet Home faces. At the same time, as property values increase, property owners can expect to pay more taxes. Granted, no one likes to pay more taxes, but we’d be paying for more cops.

This is a necessary feature, one that will allow the department to some extent grow with growth in crime — something it is currently unable to do in any effective way. While crime rates have grown, the department’s service levels have remained static or, at times, one officer down.

Police officers need time to investigate such things as reported thefts. Now, though the department’s two detectives are showing regular success in a variety of cases, ranging from drugs to thefts, follow-up in any but the most serious cases takes a back seat to answering calls.

Patrol officers spend most of their time traveling from call to call over the course of their shifts. On a recent afternoon, officers responded to calls ranging from someone who was trapped in her house by a roving dog, to neighbors who were arguing. It’s little wonder that officers can’t investigate crimes thoroughly.

A rate-based levy should improve the situation.

The downside to a rate-based levy is that when property values decrease, revenue falls in direct proportion. However, the fixed-amount levy hasn’t fared well in times of decreasing property values either because 1990’s Measure Five creates “compression,” an effect that keeps rates down on individual properties based on the overall general government limit of $10 per $1,000.

In other words, taxpayers get to keep more of their money. The downside to that has been more crime, more theft and less security for those taxpayers.

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District has benefited from going to a permanent rate-based approach. The fire department has been able to add two paid paramedics since it became a district five years ago, with another paid paramedic expected on staff within the month.

While a rate-based levy won’t necessarily provide quite the same improvement for the Police Department, it will still be better than what we have now. A rate-based levy would still fall under the compression effect. It may not actually provide extra officers, but it can help keep the department out of future revenue shortfalls. It will provide funding that better reflects the demands on the police by their community.

The May 16 election requires a 50-percent turnout to pass the levy. If you don’t like the way things are, make sure you’re one of those voters.