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Guest Opinion: Why giving market food vendors 'a break' is poor public policy

When Ashland voters approved the Food and Beverage Tax in 1993 and again in 2009, they mandated the definitions, rules and regulations of tax collection as well as the procedures and penalties to contend with those who run afoul of compliance.

In recent weeks, several members of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market discovered they are subject to paying the food and beverage tax. Understandably, they were surprised, and their reactions were predictable.

Most cited culpable ignorance of the law; others lashed out at enforcement efforts, suggesting the City was at fault for not educating them or for not noticing their non-compliance in years past. Some even suggested the law shouldn't apply to them, and therefore they shouldn't have to pay the tax!

The issue has now bubbled up to the City Council. City staff is asking the Council for guidance on how to hold these vendors accountable in light of the market's closure for the season.

An easy resolution is for the city to abandon its tax collection efforts and put the market on notice that non-compliance will not be tolerated going forward. This approach might seem rational, but at the risk of sounding cruel and cold-hearted, it is the wrong answer in terms of good governance because it sends a troubling, inconsistent message.

Businesses of all sizes are responsible for knowing the rules of operation in the communities they serve. Accepting the "I didn't know" defense undermines the City's laws, codes and enforcement efforts. This approach is also inherently unfair to law-abiding businesses and particularly businesses or individuals who came into compliance only after being assessed late fees or interest charges in the past.

Out of fairness, and with respect to the municipal code, the reasonable approach is to require vendors to pay the food and beverage tax owed for 2014, or in the absence of record-keeping, an estimated amount. The ability to negotiate a payment plan over the course of several months is an available option to reduce the financial burden.

Critics of this approach cite collection of this miniscule amount of revenue is not worth the investment of additional City staff time. However, the importance and integrity of this vital municipal revenue source shouldn't be undermined until a City Council majority amends the tax code.

The growers and crafters are an important element of Ashland's business community, but arbitrary collection of the City's food and beverage tax is poor public policy.

Rich Rosenthal is a member of the Ashland City Council.