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City's revenue options include entertainment tax

The Ashland City Council is considering raising fees to pay for new police positions, with the options including an event tax for visitors to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and large music venues.

In its study session Monday night, the council affirmed its support for hiring three additional police officers and heard options on how they could finance the new positions they approved in April. The city plans to hire five new officers, with the cost for two coming from raising property taxes by 4.5 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed valuation and raising a public support fee on electric meters by 50 cents.

The cost for three additional officers, including benefits, would be $330,000 per year. City Administrative Services Director Mark Welch told the council the money won't be found in the current general fund.

“It’s not there," he said. "With the cost of PERS (retirement), health care and a facilities fee borrowed to balance the general fund, we don’t have the money. It’ll have to be generated.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery asked Welch to lay out the full case of why the money cannot come from the general fund or cannot be achieved through savings. Councilor Traci Darrow agreed with Slattery that the information would be important for the public to understand.

“It would be helpful to show we’ve already gone through a process,” Darrow said.

Welch laid out several possible options for financing the new officers:

  • An increase of the transient occupancy tax. Welch told the council each 1 percent increase would fund an officer plus provide $250,000 for tourism infrastructure.
  • A public safety support fee increase. Councilor Mike Morris suggested that rather than a meter fee Welch could look at taxing each room in a hotel as a possibility.
  • An additional property tax increase. The city has roughly 5 cents per thousand available before hitting the state cap on property taxes.
  • An increase to the food and beverage tax.
  • Add parking fees and a live entertainment tax.

Slattery suggested an entertainment tax could be viewed as being beneficial to OSF and others downtown.

“Are we going to have increased patrols downtown?" he asked. "Is this going to help that issue which affects their businesses?” (Correction: The previous quote was incorrectly attributed to Councilor Rich Rosenthal in an early version of this story.)

Police Chief Tighe O’Meara indicated that he does intend to position more officers to deal with  “downtown behavior” such as blocking sidewalks, littering, smoking, having unleashed dogs or any behavior deemed aggressive. Panhandling is a protected act, according to City Attorney Dave Lohman, so greater enforcement would not include cracking down on requests for donations.

Slattery suggested having more patrols around the theaters when people get out of shows. “We do have some legitimate issues in the downtown area,” he said.

Welch also included a local gas tax as a possible revenue source but the council decided against exploring that option.

In previous council meetings, O'Meara said he wanted to add one officer per patrol shift and a school resource officer.

When asked about the possibility of getting money from forfeitures through cooperation with the Federal Drug Administration, O’Meara said the police department no longer has that partnership and does not want to raise funds in that way.

“We’re not participating in any forfeiture programs now," he said. "It’s not what we’re geared toward. We’re careful about how we take people’s money.”

O’Meara said his department does not use traffic tickets to fund police activities. “We don’t engage to bring in money,” he said.

Councilors asked city staff to bring back more specifics about the revenue options in a regular business meeting. A date has not been set.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.