Incumbent City Councilor Claire Syrett is running largely unopposed in the November election in Ward 7. But write-in J Hallie Roberts is challenging Syrett. While the two agree on several areas — including that homelessness is a major issue in Eugene — they disagree on the community payroll tax and the use of these funds.
Ward 7 incorporates the Whiteaker neighborhood, River Road, Trainsong and Santa Clara.
Syrett has been a city councilor since 2012. Roberts has never held public office but worked on the campaign for STAR (Score then Automatic Runoff) Voting. Syrett defeated two opponents in the primary with more than 50 percent of the vote so she avoided a runoff election. Roberts says she is hoping to get the word out about her write-in campaign.
On the issue of the homeless, Syrett points out that the Whiteaker has taken on a fair share of the services for the unhoused, and the neighborhood in general is tolerant when it comes to folks who need a place to camp out.
“But we reach our limits at times, and we get frustrated and concerned about the uncertainty of who is sleeping out there,” Syrett says. “The way I characterize it, if they are camping in their car and it’s clean, they can stay for months. However, if they are sitting there doing drugs and getting into fights, then we lose our tolerance, and it’s becoming more increasingly the latter.”
While Roberts didn’t offer a concrete solution for the homeless and housing, she does have a plan for helping these folks remain fed. “I’d like to see creative solutions like eco-therapy, connecting our community members to food growing opportunities,” Roberts says. “We have a lot of potential to increase urban farming and give people access to local organic produce.”
The main area the two candidates disagree on is Eugene’s Community Safety Payroll Tax, which was passed in June 2019 and goes into effect Jan. 1. According to the city, it will raise $23.6 million a year “to provide faster, more efficient safety responses, deter crime, connect people to services, engage and help at-risk youth, support more investigations and court services, and add jail beds to reduce capacity-based releases and hold those who commit crimes accountable,”
It is a tax on employees, the employers and self-employed individuals at varying rates depending on income. Employees are exempt from the tax if they earn $12 an hour or less. If employees earn between $12.01 and $15 they are taxed at a rate of 0.30 percent of total taxable wages. If employees earn more than $15 an hour the tax is calculated at a rate of 0.44 percent of total taxable wages.
The tax was highly criticized by the community, with many people saying that since it was passed by the council, not a public vote, they did not get a say in the tax, and still others in Eugene who didn’t want to give the EPD more public money.
Syrett defends the tax, saying, “A couple years ago we had a change in leadership at the police department. We had an interim chief, and he used his time here to do some analysis on how the department was doing in terms of delivering public safety, and demonstrated to us that we had a real deficit in terms of being able to respond to 911 calls, follow up on crimes, or do any type of proactive policing.” The prior chief had not asked for any increases for many years, and as the city grew, the police force didn’t, Syrett says.
In 2018 the budget was $56.07 million, in 2019 it was $58.50 million, in 2020 it was $61.35 million, and in 2021 it is $66.95 million, with $3,281,432 estimated to come from the payroll tax, which translates to 4.9 percent of the police budget.
Roberts says public trust in the police is at an all-time low. With the protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, the conduct of police forces has been under constant scrutiny. In Eugene, police have repeatedly tear-gassed protesters as well as journalists.
“The community wanted the council to take action on police brutality, and they chose to do nothing, and pass a budget increase for EPD” Roberts says. “I see a lack of flexibility and desire to make important changes. I don’t think we should be increasing the police budget during this moment, and a time when we are inquiring so deep in their actions. We should remove people who are taxing the middle class to increase the police budget.”
On June 23, during intense Black Lives Matter protests, the City Council voted unanimously to increase the EPD budget, which is separate from the Community Payroll Tax.
“I think Chief [Chris] Skinner makes me hopeful that we can move even further in terms of embracing the idea that institutional racism can be baked into an institution,” Syrett says. “It’s not a reflection of the individuals that are in that institution and their personal attitudes towards other human beings. But that you can be inculcated into a culture that says you respond to certain people in certain ways because that’s what your training has told you to do. I think it’s challenging, but I want to do the work with EPD in a way that keeps those folks on the force that are ready to do that work with us.”