By Lynn Thompson: Dropping the meals tax will leave a huge deficit in the budget — this will have to be made up by the community.
For four years I have been a citizen member of the Ashland Budget Committee and its chair for the past two. I have been listening to the meals tax arguments for the last month and now my ballot is here. For me, the meals tax is a clear "yes" vote, and I'd like to share my reasoning.
Dropping the meals tax will leave a huge deficit in the budget — $1.5 million dollars was the tax's contribution last year to the wastewater plant debt payment. This will have to be made up by the community. The money has to come from somewhere and there are no easy sources to tap. The obvious choice is to increase sewer rates. I figure it at $72 for every man, woman and child in town. This does represent a significant added burden, particularly on top of the other tax and rate increases we have experienced. There will be more costs as the infrastructure will require upgrades over the next 20 years. As a utility-bill payer and someone who eats out regularly, I don't have a problem asking tourists and those who eat out to absorb some costs in relation to their presumed use of the system. This gives me a choice and that is a plus. On the other hand, I have no choice about my sewer rate, which is set by the city.
The "cons" argue that the tax places an unfair burden on restaurants and results in huge losses of revenue. Does the meals tax really have a significant effect on tourism? While some anecdotal information is offered that people avoid Ashland because of the tax, I find it hard to believe that large numbers of people who come to Ashland are choosing to go to Talent or Medford for dinner. And the argument that restaurants are being unfairly used to collect the tax ignores all of the benefits they get from being located in Ashland. For example, the city charges the Oregon Shakespeare Festival $1 a year to lease its prime downtown property because OSF is a huge tourist draw. This is a great boon to the restaurant industry that is paid for by the community.
What really cinches it for me is the 20 percent for parks. The "cons" evidently do not feel parks are an important priority balanced against the tax burden. Or perhaps they assume that somehow the city can find money elsewhere. This is just not true. Parks are funded in the city's budget through the general fund. Many Ashlanders don't realize that more than 50 percent of the permanent property tax rate (capped by Measure 50) goes to Ashland Parks & Recreation. This leaves less than 50 percent of property tax revenue to pay for police, fire and basic city operations.
Because of increased costs and the economic downturn, the budget committee has had to struggle mightily every year to balance the general fund. Out of necessity we have cut city staffing every year for the past three years. Police staffing has been reduced year after year. We also have had layoffs in Fire & Rescue and struggled over whether we can afford to save the CERT program. This year we ended up increasing property taxes to within a whisper of the Measure 50 limit to avoid losing a firefighter because of the potential danger to the city. Additional cuts in police and fire really will compromise public safety.
Here's where the meals tax comes in. Under the measure on the ballot, 20 percent of the meals tax will be available to help fund parks. Unlike the expiring meals tax, which could only be used to buy open space, this meals tax can be used to develop what we have.
Every Ashlander I know loves our parks and finds them an essential part of our quality of life. They are undoubtedly important to tourism. With the meals tax, we will be able to continue to maintain and develop our parks. Without the meals tax, we must rely exclusively on property taxes in the general fund to fund parks along with fire, police and other essential city services. In my mind, considering all of the burdens and alternatives, the balance clearly falls in favor of the renewing the tax.
Lynn Thompson is a retired attorney who has lived in Ashland for nine years.