By Tom DuBois: Do I believe a wave of Medford, Grants Pass, and Central Point folks will descend on Ashland if the meals tax is eliminated? No, I donít. But I do have my reasons for not wanting a meals tax.
I own Ashland Grilla Bites restaurant on the plaza. I'm extremely grateful and blessed for three successful years in business and for all of the friendly locals and visitors who walk through our doors. I haven't had a time when I didn't charge and collect the meals tax. I consider the collection of the tax a special civic duty. I have no before-and-after stories to tell, so I can't say one hundred percent if the meals tax affects me negatively. However, I have heard many times the surprise from Oregonians when the tally for their order is not the advertised, non-taxed price.
I participated in the telephone meals tax survey of local, non-Ashland communities and was surprised at the high percentage of folks who strongly stated their dislike of the meals tax and their avoidance of eating out in Ashland because of it. I am, however, dubious of the extrapolated figures that have been generated because of the survey. But sales tax, or the lack of it, does influence lots of people when considering buying. There are huge numbers of people in Vancouver, Wash., who shop in Portland regularly to avoid their state sales tax. My guess is, Portlanders never shop in Washington. There are lots of Californians from Yreka, Mt. Shasta, and even Redding who at planned intervals drive to Costco and the like in Medford to avoid California sales tax.
Do I believe a wave of Medford, Grants Pass, and Central Point folks will descend on Ashland if the meals tax is eliminated? No, I don't. But I do have my reasons for not wanting a meals tax.
First, the meals tax only targets one segment of our Ashland businesses. If we vote for any sales tax, I'd rather have an across-the-board sales tax on all goods and services, excluding groceries, produce, medical care and medical supplies, to be collected only until the sewer improvement loan is paid off. That includes retail, professional services, wholesale, etc. We'd pay off the sewer loan rapidly, saving many thousands in interest payments. When I suggested this to one of our city council members, that person said it would hurt retailers in Ashland. How can that be, when restaurant owners are told by proponents that the tax does not affect them?
Second, contrary to what its proponents say, the meals tax is not a tourist tax. Recently, the Daily Tidings reported that 10 percent of the tax is collected by local delis and grocery stores. There are about 110 Ashland restaurants and cafes that collect the meals tax. About 40 of those are in the "tourist" area of downtown Ashland, so about half the tax is collected by these tourist eateries. If those places are like mine, about half of their business comes from visitors, the other half from locals. So, of the 90 percent of the tax that comes from restaurants, only about half comes from downtown (45 percent), and only half of that (22.5 percent) comes from tourists. That means that about 75 percent of the tax is paid for by the people of Ashland.
Tourists in Oregon pay local taxes when they stay at hotels, motels and B&Bs. Ashland is not unique in this. Our 10 percent hotel tax is the same as Medford, Jacksonville and Grants Pass. This is an accepted practice statewide and nationwide. When I last stayed in Seattle, my room tax was 16 percent. If we decide that we want others to help pay for our own sewer bills, Ashland might want to increase the room tax.
And that really is the gist of this argument, isn't it? Who can we get to pay for that which we use? The cynic gleefully says that he never eats out, so there! But if you really look at the needs being met by the tax, the sewer plant improvement, it is our community that needs to equitably pay its own way. What better way to do this that to pay for it through your own sewer bill? I'm always surprised by the city officials who I have spoken with and read comments from who are so enthusiastic about the tax. Should the tax be voted against, the loan will be paid off anyway, by regular monthly billing of the sewer users, so there's really no merit in strongly advocating for the tax and the subsequent fear of "big increases" in the sewer bill (a small $10 a month per house).
I love what I do at my restaurant and the customers that we serve. We have prospered modestly since we have opened and consider it an honor to serve locals and our visitors. But, in all actuality, I will be losing money, should we eliminate the meals tax. How? Two ways. I won't be getting the 5 percent of the tax I collect for the city. Also, I'll be paying the increase in my sewer bill. But I still feel that the meals tax is wrong. Am I naïve? Probably. I've always felt it important to pay your own way in life. My objections to the meals tax are that it is unfairly placed on just one type of Ashland business for the wrong stated reason: The tourists will pay it. We should all contribute to this debt fairly, and the meals tax does not accomplish that goal.
Tom DuBois has co-owned Ashland Grilla Bites restaurant for 3 1/2 years.