A recent survey about Eugene’s Community Safety Initiative (CSI) found that community members want the payroll tax funds to go towards less policing and more resources for mental health and other social services. Eugene City Councilors discussed the survey during a work session on May 10.
The survey also found that roughly one-third of responders didn’t know anything about the payroll tax.
“I wasn’t surprised by the results,” City Councilor Emily Semple said. “It’s daunting but at least we can see the ways people think we should make it better, and that’s important.”
When the CSI was first adopted in June 2019, it was unpopular throughout the community. The tax is designed to raise additional money to pay for police and other safety initiatives. The council was criticized for passing the ordinance without putting it on the ballot, allowing voters to have a say. Once the tax went into effect on January 2021, businesses faced obstacles in administering it, and were frustrated at having to tax employees during a pandemic.
In November 2020, the City Council formed focus groups to get input on how the payroll tax funding should be prioritized. The focus groups were composed of members from Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), Jewish and LGBTQ communities. They prioritized intervention programs, representation of people of color working in the justice system and increased ability to call mental health services for help without bringing in police.
In March 2021, the city hired a consultant to create the survey, which was launched to gather community input on the CSI’s original priorities as well as the priorities identified by the focus groups.
Across the board, most people who responded to the survey advocated for more social service support, including emergency shelter, youth prevention and increased mental health services. In comparison, few people supported more police officers and jail capacity.
After a brief presentation of survey findings, most councilors acknowledged the overwhelming emphasis on homeless and mental health services. Some weren’t surprised by the results.
Mayor Lucy Vinis said the CSI was initially framed as providing safety for Eugene residents, with “safety” being a keyword.
“So many of these respondents came back, and to them it’s really framed as community well-being,” Vinis said. Councilor Greg Evans said the city isn’t doing enough to address social services and the need for increased BIPOC representation across the board. He also added that there is a big issue with the younger demographic not trusting the police, and the police not trusting younger people.
“I think it will behoove us if we develop some way to build community relationships with youth,” Evans said.
One councilor, Mike Clark, who initially voted against implementing a payroll tax to pay for the community safety initiative, said although the tax is unjust, the council is changing the nature of the problem, shifting the focus from safety to providing more social services.
Several council members, including Alan Zelenka and Claire Syrett, agreed that some of the demands for increased social services can’t really be solved by the community safety initiative and that the city needs support from the state and federal level.
During the public forum, community members commented on the results of the CSI survey, agreeing that they want more services for unhoused people, rather than more police. Some argued that more social services and programs would provide real safety.
The council did not make any decisions on how they will allocate the funds from the payroll tax to support community safety, but councilors did agree they would look at the report in more detail and have a lot to think on in terms of direction.
You can watch the Eugene City Council work session here and the following meeting and public forum here.