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Meals tax would replace new Jacksonville utility fee

JACKSONVILLE — Petitioners hope to put a 5 percent food and beverage tax on the November ballot to fund police services and replace a City Council-approved $20 surcharge on utility bills.

Public meetings will be held at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesday, May 9, at the Jacksonville library to explain the proposal, said Doug Phillips, who is heading the effort .A meeting was also held Tuesday.

Petitioners must wait 10 days before they can start collecting signatures needed to qualify the measure after the city attorney approved a draft ballot title Monday. The city must first publish a legal notice on the proposal and the ballot title can be challenged. Passage of the meals tax would bring elimination of the $20 surcharge.

“All we want is for the citizens to have a chance to choose,” said Phillips, who is on the city’s Budget Committee. Tom Gorman and Michael Sewitsky are assisting Phillips and he has volunteers ready to collect the 400 signatures required by Aug. 10.

At an April 17 meeting, city councilors voted 6-1 to create an ordinance to implement the utility fee. They approved the ordinance May 1 by the same 6-1 vote.

The utility fee did not go over well with some.

“I oppose the surcharge. I feel this should go to a vote of the public … not just a vote of the council,” resident Katie Haugse said at the April session.

Councilor Criss Garcia, who voted against the measure, said during the same meeting it would be regressive and a burden on some segments of the community.

“I want to keep Jacksonville livable and affordable,” said Garcia. “We have a long tradition of keeping government in check.”

The surcharge will go into effect on July 1. The city Budget Committee, which includes councilors, began to study the issue over a year ago. Police funding now consumes more than $600,000 of the general fund. The $20 surcharge would raise about $400,000 and would end after five years.

Jacksonville plans use the money freed up in the general fund to pay for street repairs, historic preservation, parks and the Fire Department. Jacksonville residents already pay $35 a month on their utility bills for fire and emergency medical services.

Phillips said he and others on the committee talked with more than 100 people who thought a meals tax should be considered. But in a February 2017 meeting the Budget Committee voted 7-3 to remove that option from consideration. The committee also explored a tax levy, which would have required a vote, but ended up recommending a surcharge to the council.

Phillips said local restaurant owners oppose a meals tax.

“They don’t want it because they are worried it’s going to scare away tourists and impact their business,” said Phillips.

The town has a dozen restaurants, several coffee shops and venues that sell prepared food that would be taxed. A summary lists exemptions, such as bakery items prepared for consumption off premises.

Only Ashland and Yachats have meals taxes in Oregon. Ashland has had one since 1992 and Yachats since 2008. Phillips said he spoke with 30 restaurant owners in Ashland and 10 in Yachats. The common response was that the tax didn’t hurt business a measurable amount and that it was not an issue for out-of-state tourists used to paying sales taxes, he said.

The meals tax in Ashland for the 2017-19 budget period is estimated to generate $5.9 million. In Yachats the food and beverage tax brings in about $350,000 a year.

Under the proposed ballot measure, the city and restaurant owners would be reimbursed for administrative costs, then the next $400,000 collected would go to the police fund. Any additional amount would be spent for historic preservation or fire protection.

Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.