Talk Newspaper: The meals tax enraged some in our town, and fifteen years later the embers are hot enough to fan back to flame with a few bland words.
Two weeks ago I asked what you think of Ashland's meals and beverage tax. It seemed like time to start warming our engines for the debate over a ballot measure we may see later this year to renew the tax when it expires at the end of 2010. What I found out is that some of your engines are plenty warm already.
The first hint was a guest op-ed by a strong meals tax opponent ("Meals tax costs Ashland $9 million a year, diminishes community's sustainability," March 31), which hopped from a lucid summary of what's wrong with the tax to an explanation of what's wrong with me. He had the grace to follow up immediately with an apologetic letter to the editor, a sequence that had some readers scratching their heads. Why would this guest columnist, who publishes his own paper and has worked the journalistic trenches as long as anyone in town, fire off a broadside he'd want to withdraw 48 hours later? Why wouldn't he follow the tried-and-true practice of letting a written attack simmer on the desk for a while before sending it?
He'd be the right one to ask, but at least part of the answer comes from some crazy-making quality of this particular issue. The meals tax enraged some in our town, and 15 years later the embers are hot enough to fan back to flame with a few bland words. As one reader wrote online, "In what passes for polite Ashland society, it's safer to bring up sex, religion or politics than it is to start a discussion about the meal tax." Leaving safety behind, he says "On top of the 5% tax, restaurants are also dealing with the hike in the minimum wage, the hike in food costs and menu prices that are NEVER supposed to change!"
Others objected pretty much the same way. "The sewage bill belongs to property owners," wrote one, "but due to greed and corruption, that responsibility has fallen on everyone, benefiting few. Typical Ashland politics: argue forever, then settle on something no one likes and doesn't work but costs more than expected. Rinse, repeat."
And a third offered a paragraph that could be dragged-and-dropped into a future Voters Pamphlet: "It is ridiculous to ask Ashland restaurants to try and compete for business from Rogue Valley residents with this 5% tax. These economic times are such that any disadvantage could be what puts your restaurant out of business. Ashland residents do not eat out enough in the winter time to sustain our restaurant industry so we need to try and draw from outside Ashland for business. It is extremely unfair to target just one type of business for this sort of tax. We should have a general sales tax for Ashland that retailers would help collect. City will say sewer bill will go up — well apparently it's going up anyways. This city should not support unfair taxation on one segment of its business population. Revenues from this tax stream are very unstable and this system does not make sense if you want a consistent source of funding. No on the meals tax!!!"
The first commenter also recognized that saying no to this tax means saying yes to something else, at least to pay off the sewage plant bonds that take 80 percent of the meals tax revenue "So, if not the meals tax, how then?... we can get over the idea that tourists should have to pay for flushing toilets while they're in our town. When I'm on a vacation, that is, being a tourist in someone else's town, I'm not aware that I've ever been dinged for using a bathroom in a restaurant or hotel. Maybe we should extend the courtesy — mi casa es su casa, and we'll call it even when I visit you."
I don't think that anyone who's watched how hard some folks work to keep their restaurants going in this town can blow off these arguments. I get the reasoning. What I've never fully understood is the volume. With the amount of injustice and life-and-death suffering we hear and read about nearly every day, it's the meals tax we can't talk about in polite company? Tell me what I'm missing here.
And, more to the point of what happens next, tell the city what you're thinking. To inform the council's decision, city staff will gather public comments at the Community Center across from Lithia Park on Monday, May 18, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and again from 4 to 6 p.m.
What you think counts.
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.