Talk Newspaper: By Jeff Golden: What do you think about Ashland's meals and beverage tax?

What do you think about Ashland's meals and beverage tax? You may be asked that formally before year's end.

If you arrived in town since 1993, you may not have given much thought to the meals tax. You may have wondered why you pay it here and not elsewhere in Oregon, but if you're from California or some other state with a general sales tax (which is to say almost all of them), it probably feels normal enough to blend into the background.

That's less true for longer-term residents. Ashland's had its share of squabbles over the years, but for sheer sparks and anger it's hard to beat the civil war over the meals tax. A little history.

The tax came about to fund two specific programs. One was mandatory: Effluent from the city's sewage treatment plant into Bear Creek had been violating state standards for years and called for a multi-million dollar upgrade. The second was optional, and came from the vision that a network of neighborhood parks and connecting hiking trails would help sustain Ashland's quality of life into the future. That called for funding to purchase key undeveloped properties before real estate prices escalated beyond reach. Ashland's key civic players met and argued and negotiated for years to find the best funding mechanism. There was no consensus, so the task became selection of the least-flawed alternative. In March 1993, over the objections of most restaurant owners, many realtors and some vocal citizens, Ashland voters narrowly approved a measure to impose a 1 percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages for acquisition of open-space properties. The measure also gave the council authority to increase the tax to not more than 5 percent at its discretion, with everything beyond that original 1 percent dedicated to sewage treatment improvements.

I remember hearing immediately from some unhappy people, partly because — full disclosure here — I was married at the time to Mayor Cathy Shaw, who pushed hard for the tax (she didn't find it perfect, either, but thought it was past time to move forward on both cleaning effluent and acquiring land). Most of the cranky were restaurant owners and assertive customers, who said too much burden was landing on a single business sector, and realtors wary of permanently reducing the inventory of privately owned property. Most Ashlanders without those specific interests seemed, if not thrilled, calm.

That soon changed. In May of 1993, the City Council took all the authority they gained in March by raising the tax to the full 5 percent, 1 percent for open space and 4 percent for paying off the sewer plant loan, the formula that continues today. More than a few people felt sand-bagged: You sell us a 1 percent tax and then quintuple it in less than two months? My guess is that if you asked anti-tax Ashlanders to trace their aggravation to its roots, you'd hear this tale more than once.

However you remember all that, Ashland has accomplished two goals that seemed like pipe dreams when this whole episode started: We have a vital network of well-used public open space, and an ongoing tool for servicing a necessary city debt. I can't say I never notice the 5 percent tacked onto my bill when I eat out, but it's definitely receded somewhere in the fold of my brain where I store mundane and tolerable facts of life.

That's not everyone's experience. I know people who say they eat in our restaurants less or not at all since the tax, and I occasionally hear someone say it drove his restaurant out of business. I've heard Medford folks add it to their lists of reasons (as if they needed more) to stay away from Ashland on pain of death. I tend to think that's more poetic license than deep-seated conviction, but I've been wrong before speculating on what other people "really" think.

You'll hear more about all this. By law the meals tax will expire at the end of 2010, and the City Council may ask us to vote this November on its extension. If so, get ready for a debate that will not bore you. One powerful element will be the city's recent projection that rejecting the meals tax could force sewer rates, recently increased 20 percent, to jump another 60 percent, at least until the sewage plant loan is paid off in 2023. That will give the inquiry "How do you like the meals tax?" some meaning by tacking on a follow-up question: "Compared to what?"

(Want to weigh in? Two public meetings are planned for May to help inform the council's decisions. Check this paper and the city Web site for dates and times.)

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups," and the recently released novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.