Salem’s problems may have changed over the past year, but Linda Norris’ outlook hasn’t.
“I love this community, this job, and working for this city,” Norris said.
It’s been well over a year since Mayor Janet Taylor and Salem City Council decided officially to give Norris the title of City Manager. She had been serving on an interim basis for the previous eight months. The unassuming mother of two has brought a focused, steadfast yet engaging demeanor to a role which has been uniquely challenging in the current times of tight budgets and falling revenue forecasts.
A year ago, a big threat facing Salem was the $4 per gallon price of gasoline, which was placing enormous strain on operating costs for the city’s public vehicle fleet.
How times have changed.
Last fall, the financial credit crisis that has rocked the global economy forced city leaders and residents to come to grips with the reality that services would have to be cut, and belts tightened elsewhere to accommodate drastically lower revenues.
It led to a moment of truth, Norris said, in early October of last year, when a major water and sewer project had to be put on hold. Tremors felt in the commercial paper trading market, foreboding the current credit crisis, jeopardized the short-term borrowing that Salem was going to use to pay for the work, and forced Norris and the city council to scramble for other sources of funding.
A lot of major financial decisions were made in a rapid time frame, she said.
“We were trying to make the right decisions about how far down to take the organization,” she said, “without knowing where [the economy] was going to bottom out.”
I think we came through it really well.”
City Council, with input from citizens in community forums, prioritized services directly related to safe communities, quality of life, healthy environment and vibrant economy. These services were reorganized to accommodate budget constraints. Other services, like building and safety and transportation projects were reduced. Certain programs like youth sports programs were transferred to the non-profit sector, to ensure continued operation. And cutbacks in administration and management positions forced staff layoffs.
“It [was] just constantly balancing what we needed to do to stay within our revenue,” Norris said, “versus what was going to happen to people’s positions.”
As in other regions of the country, signs are beginning to emerge in Salem of a possible end to the downturn.
“I think it’s getting better,” Norris said. “I wouldn’t say it’s done, by any means.”
There is a noticeable increase in residential building permits, she said, and commercial building projects have remained stable. Norris also gives credit to two major building projects for sustaining the economy: the renovation of the Oregon State Hospital and construction of the Sanyo Electric facility at the 5400 block of Gaffin Road. Slated to produce silicon ingot and solar wafers, the Sanyo plant, once operations-ready, is predicted to create roughly 200 jobs by December 2010.
Help is also coming to Salem by way of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Through energy-efficiency community block grants, the city is eligible to receive $1.5 million in stimulus money to upgrade city facilities to make them more energy- efficient, and to develop a community-wide strategy to reduce energy costs and consumption.
Norris said the average Salem resident will see stimulus money at work most clearly in local Oregon Department of Transportation road projects, as well as in weatherization projects going on in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Funds have also been made available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for floodplain easement at Minto-Brown Island Park, returning farm acreage to a natural area. Planting plans are underway, Norris said.
Unlike other parts of the country ravaged by the mortgage crisis, Salem neighborhoods have been relatively unscathed. But the city did also receive money through neighborhood stabilization grants, for assisting first-time homeowners with down payments in purchasing foreclosed homes.
Most notably, $3.5 million has been committed to structural reinforcement and lead paint abatement work on the Union Street Bridge. Salem will also be adding six additional security cameras on the bridge for public safety.
Through the economic chaos of the past year, Norris has remained committed to urban renewal. Salem’s revitalization effort, Vision 2020, a major focus last summer, remains very much on track, Norris said. The timeline of the project has been pushed back in some areas, but overall efforts to create a vibrant downtown with an art scene and public spaces remain a long-term priority.
Norris credits the teamwork and cooperation of both civic leaders and an involved citizenry in weathering the recession thus far.
“Even in the most challenging times, everybody pulls together and brings their best ideas and creativity to the table,” she said. “We really work in this city as teams and in groups, because none of us has all the answers.”