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Grants Pass considers sales tax to fund county jail beds

The Grants Pass City Council is considering a local sales tax to continue paying for extra beds at the Josephine County Jail.

The council is looking for a permanent funding solution after voters defeated the fourth countywide public safety levy in three years on May 19. 

At a council workshop on Monday, City Manager Aaron Cubic said 55 percent of Grants Pass voters approved of the county's levy, meaning city residents supported all four public safety levies.

Grants Pass began renting jail beds from Josephine County in August 2013 after widespread county layoffs in 2012 reduced jail capacity.

All eight councilors favored directing city staff to investigate ways to continue leasing jail beds, but the sales tax discussion prompted polite disagreement.

Councilor Lily Morgan suggested considering increasing property taxes instead.

"The cost of administering a sales tax would place an unfair burden on businesses," Morgan said.

She advocated for creating a task force to consider all potential methods of funding criminal justice, not just a sales tax.

But others zeroed in on a sales tax, which would have to be approved by the voters.

"This is a permanent solution," Councilor Jim Goodwin said.

"I'm glad we're finally having a serious, intelligent discussion about a sales tax," Mayor Darin Fowler added.

Cubic told the council it needs to seek funding solutions for public safety to show support for its constituency. He also said the city can't afford to keep using money from its current revenue sources to pay for jail beds.

"We don't have the ability to continue to subsidize the criminal justice system," Cubic said.

"We do have the opportunity to be leaders," Councilor Roy Lindsay said. "We do have the opportunity to show we care."

"This is a tough decision and this council doesn't back off tough decisions," Council President Dan DeYoung said.

Staff will bring forward a resolution to create a Criminal Justice Sales Tax Task Force at the June 17 council meeting. Councilors have until July 27 to get a measure on the November ballot.

Meanwhile, all of the councilors except Morgan were in favor of allowing a jail bed utility fee to expire on June 30 and finding a different way to raise the $972,000 that is needed. Morgan recommended extending the fee.

"People are already paying it," she said.

DeYoung, though, said he was never comfortable with the utility fee structure because he thought some of the large commercial customers had to pay too much.

"It think it almost has to sunset," DeYoung said. He has publicly stated in the past that the council would not extend the utility fee.

As for potential funding sources, several councilors recommended using $200,000 that's available in the general fund as a result of workers compensation insurance savings.

Councilor Dennis Roler said the $200,000 could be used to help cover part of the jail bed tab. Adjustments could be made in current budget items for the remainder.

Goodwin agreed with Roler, but he also emphasized the importance of continuing the jail bed lease.

"We can't do without the jail bed contract. Period," Goodwin said.

The city already has a targeted sales tax of sorts, the "transient room tax" that is paid by hotels, motels and other businesses that provide overnight accommodations. Many cities and counties statewide have such a tax. Another example of a targeted sales tax is in Ashland, where the city levies a 5 percent sales tax on prepared food to pay for a new wastewater treatment plant and open space for parks.