Wise planning outweighs charity

The city Budget Committee is doing the right thing in taking a second look at its decision to spend some $18,000 on local charities.

Two weeks ago, the committee voted unanimously to give $5,000 each to Sweet Home Emergency Ministries and the HOPE Center, $3,000 to the Kids Food Pak program and $5,000 to the City Council’s community grants program, which had been axed in the staff budget recommendation.

These were in addition to decisions to provide funds for the pool at the School District’s request and to restore funding to the summer recreation program.

While we applaud each of the organizations that would receive these funds and support them and their missions, this is not an appropriate action for the city in these tough economic times.

The City Council’s mission is to provide specific services to the residents of the city, most importantly, law enforcement. It needs to spend public money on those public services. That’s particularly true now. On April 21, City Manager Craig Martin told Budget Committee members before they took their first crack at the document that things are tightening up for the city as a result of the recession. The city is negotiating with its law enforcement employees, who want raises that city officials say Sweet Home can’t afford.

Dave Holley originated the proposals for SHEM, the HOPE Center and the Kids Food Pak program. We normally support Holley’s budget positions and always hold him in high regard for his fiscally conservative philosophy and insight. This is one of the rare times we disagree with him, but we applaud his and the Budget Committee’s intent.

Budget Committee Chairman Rich Rowley noted that the committee is made up of people. He suggested that if paying for those city services were all that mattered, a computer could spit out the numbers; but the ability to make decisions and help the people are what make the committee and budget process useful.

We think the committee has more to discuss than that. It should be thinking about the hard-working people who provide the cash in the first place and about how to spend conservatively, especially in times like these.

The city hasn’t yet experienced the funding problems suffered by other government agencies in the last several years, but it likely will. Property values are declining, and tax revenues are following. Taxes have risen, thanks to other projects our community considers important and approved, including the veterans home in Lebanon, the Oregon State University Extension Service, the Public Library and Linn County Law Levy. There is also the looming question of whether local voters are willing to create a tax district to fund the swimming pool.

The local law levy has not increased, and those tax increases are crushing the local police levy, roughly doubling property tax losses from compression. On top of this, the police officers and dispatchers are looking for a 5 percent raise next year and the year after. They have gone to binding arbitration with the city.

While the funds that have been proposed for these charities do not come from the police levy, spending money this way sends the wrong message to the employees. Essentially, the Budget Committee would be indicating that it is willing to hand out cash while maintaining that it cannot give them raises while the city lags behind comparable departments.

To put the city’s decision in a slightly different light, we suspect local taxpayers would be outraged if, in this economy, the school district were to decide to provide funding for services to homeless adults when severe cuts are already being made in staff and programs.

While we are well aware of and fully sympathetic to the realities that there are many needy people in our community right now, the city government’s mission is not to feed families, among whom the needy already receive assistance from the state and federal governments, as well as private programs such as SHEM.

The Budget Committee revisited the issue of the donations last week but took no action. It likely will approve the budget Wednesday night. It should do so without these donations.