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Ashland leaders hope to move past meals-tax animosity

ASHLAND — Following Tuesday's passage of an extension of a 5 percent tax on prepared food, city officials said they hoped community members would move past the animosity that arose in the months leading up to the election.

The extension passed 58.8 percent to 41 percent, with a voter turnout of 49.6 percent.

Councilman Greg Lemhouse, who supported the tax's renewal, said both sides worked hard to put information before the voters.

"I want us now to pull together as a community and move forward," he said. "I hope there are no ill feelings."

Some Ashland residents who favored the tax's renewal boycotted the establishments of restaurant owners who spoke out against the tax. Lemhouse said he opposes such boycotts, and doesn't believe people should be punished for voicing their views.

Adding to restaurant owners' unhappiness over the tax, some Ashland residents as well as residents of surrounding towns said during the campaign they don't dine out in Ashland because of the tax. The fierce debate over the tax's renewal likely increased awareness among Rogue Valley residents that Ashland has a 5 percent tax on prepared food and drinks.

"I think the quality of the food and service at Ashland restaurants will override that," Lemhouse said.

Four percent of the tax is spent to pay debts incurred for a major upgrade of the sewage treatment plant. The remainder is spent on parks.

At a press conference last week, a group of local business owners and employees advocated that the city of Ashland look at other revenue sources for funding the sewage plant debt. One proposal was to sell the city-owned Imperatrice property, 829 acres across Interstate 5 from Ashland. The Jackson County Assessor's Office has put the market value of that land at $7.6 million.

City Councilwoman Kate Jackson, who also supported the meals tax's renewal, said she doubts that land, which is zoned for agricultural use, could fetch that price. Even if the city could sell it for $5 million, the majority of the sewage plant debt would remain to be paid off, she said.

The principle on the sewage plant debt as of June was $17.6 million.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.