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Utility fee, bed tax increases to fund police

Ashland will cover the cost of two new police officers through increases in the safety support fee paid by residents and the room tax paid by guests at local lodging businesses.

“This is not easy. This is a tough decision — there’s no two ways around it,” City Councilor Mike Morris said of the fee increases. “We just have to do something. We’ll listen if you have a better suggestion.”

Councilors all said the increased fee on Ashland residents was their “least favorite option.” Only Councilor Dennis Slattery voted against it during Tuesday’s meeting.

“What we want and what we can afford are two different things,” Slattery said. “We talk about affordability, but the thing is we keep going to the residents each time something doesn’t work. … We have to draw a line somewhere.”

The 4-1 vote, along with the unanimous approval of raising the Transient Occupancy Tax by 1 percent, secured permanent funding for two additional officers. That completes the request from the city’s police chief for four new officers made more than a year ago.

According to staff, each officer costs $110,000 per year.

The council voted last year to raise the property tax rate 4.5 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund the first officer. It also created a monthly 50 cent fee on electric meters and designated marijuana tax receipts to fund the second.

Five options — a transient occupancy tax, live entertainment tax, property tax, parking meter fees, and public safety support fee — were presented by staff in January to fund the remaining two officers. Staff recommended increasing the city’s transient occupancy tax to 10 percent and adding a $1 fee on electric meters at Tuesday’s meeting. The city received significant opposition to the live ticket tax proposal.

According to the staff report, the 1 percent increase in the hotel/motel tax would put Ashland’s rate above the state’s average and generate $345,000 annually. Seventy percent of the increase will be restricted to tourist infrastructure and facilities, according to state legislation. The remaining funding — at $103,000 — will be unrestricted and could be used to fund an officer, staff said.

“This is the most reasonable option,” Councilor Rich Rosenthal said, saying that the need for additional officers is due in part to the large amount of tourists visiting every year.

Councilors Stefani Seffinger and Morris said they don’t completely support the tax increase, but agreed that it’s essential.

“It’s still the same thing that makes it so expensive to come and stay here to see a play,” Morris said. “It’s not the best option, but I’ll go with it.”

Rosenthal and Morris both called the additional $1 monthly public safety support fee “a short-term solution,” as the vote would increase the total fee to $1.50 on each meter.

“We have committed to four officers,” Rosenthal said. “We wrote the check, so to speak, and this is the only path.”

The council did not discuss the possibility of a live ticket tax at the meeting. At 1 percent, such a tax would generate more than $200,000 annually, according to the staff report. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Historic Ashland Armory and Southern Oregon University Performing Arts are listed as organizations that would be impacted by the tax.

OSF and OCT both opposed the tax in letters sent to the council. The owner of Brickroom, a local restaurant with occasional live music, also testified against the tax at the meeting.

“Support local artists, not tax them,” Elijah Katkin said, saying the tax would cut into his business’ ability to offer live performances by local artists.

OSF, in its letter opposing the tax, offered “an alternative to the proposed tax” with an annual donation of $25,000 to the city’s general fund — an offer that OSF is still working out with the city, the organization’s spokeswoman said.

Citizen members on the budget committee long have been advocating for cutting funding instead of raising taxes and creating new fees.

“There’s nothing that has been cut to accommodate this,” member Shaun Moran said. “Why isn’t staff bringing back that option? How is that fair to the Ashland taxpayer?

“I have three young children and a wife and I want, beyond anything, a safe community here, a safe environment for our police to work and a safe town for our visitors. We just need to find a way to pay for it responsibly. Ashlanders already pay enough. Adding an additional surcharge or fee to pay for it isn’t the way.”

Former budget committee member Sal Amery shared similar sentiments.

“The city is overspending. We’re giving everyone everything,” he said. “We’re spending more money than we have.”

Acting city Administrator Adam Hanks said the increased fees and taxes will take effect July 1.

—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.