HR County Commission debates 'Fun tax'

April 20, 2011

As its budget gets tighter and the list of programs and services that need funding gets no shorter Hood River County has begun preliminary discussions towards leveling a tax that would directly affect tourism, its second largest industry, and Mt. Hood Meadows, its largest employer.

At its monthly meeting Tuesday night the Hood River County Board of Commissioners discussed the possibility of a ski lift ticket tax with county legal counsel.

The tax would be applied to each rider using the ski lifts at Mt. Hood Meadows properties on Mount Hood and Commissioner Ron Rivers said it would likely go toward funding services that are directly impacted by recreation and tourism such as search and rescue operations on the mountain and roads maintenance.

The county commissioners also discussed the possibility of a county-wide food and beverage tax - excluding alcohol, which cannot be taxed at the county or city level - but decided to hold off on that discussion until seeing how the lift ticket tax is received.

"We need to be talking about what our goals are with this. Search and rescue is a huge cost on the mountain ... food and beverage is a lot more revenue and it should be discussed separately," Commissioner Les Perkins said.

County legal counselors Teunis Myers and Jennifer Bisset were asked to explore the idea by Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Rivers after the board's goal-setting session earlier this year.

"This goes back for quite some time on discussions on how to capture revenue from tourism industry in the county," Myers said.

While the commissioners expressed varying levels of enthusiasm - from next-to-none to gung-ho - they agreed that the idea did merit further study considering the financial situation of the county.

They felt it could be particularly worthwhile if such a tax could go toward funding search and rescue operations on the mountain - a cost which the county has next to no way of recouping.

"I've had this idea for three or four years," Rivers said after the meeting. "The second biggest industry in our county is tourism and we can't take advantage of it."

Rivers said he and County Administrator David Meriwether was to set up a meeting with Meadows CEO Matthew Drake to discuss options for the tax.

When contacted Tuesday morning, Meadows spokesman Dave Tragethon said it was the first he had heard of the proposal and wasn't prepared to comment at that time.

During the meeting, Meadows operations were raised as the primary target for the tax - mainly because it is the county's largest employer and lift tickets are easy to track - but it did not rule out taxing other kinds of recreation, such as equipment rentals.

"I call it the fun tax," Bisset said.

If the public is receptive to the idea of a tourism-based tax, Rivers said the county could pursue a food and beverage tax, which may also only apply to tourists or out-of-town visitors.

"This would be a revenue source that's dedicated to county residents," he said. "We would be using it for search and rescue and county services."

Myers said the county could develop a tax proposal to send to the voters, but that if it moved beyond a tax on lift tickets and into food and beverages that it would need to work with area cities to craft the measure.

"The bottom line is the commission can initiate a new tax if you so choose to ... it has to go to the voters for approval," Myers said.

After the meeting Rivers reiterated that the discussion of any form of tourism tax, whether it be recreation based or on food and beverages, is still in the preliminary stages.

"If our discussion doesn't pan out, we'll just move on from it," he said.

At the work session prior to Monday's meeting the board of commissioners received an update on the recent measles scare from Health Director Ellen Larsen.

"We worked hard for two weeks on that stuff," Larsen said.

The response included making contact with 40-45 people and giving 20-25 MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots. One child received a shot of hemoglobin.

Larson said they also had to contact the CDC because the index case had traveled on an airline, and also worked with Multnomah County, New York City and Washington state and Utah.

She also dove into the recent county health statistics with the board, discussed the counties rankings and what can be done better.

The board also heard an update from Kerry Cobb, the director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Cobb said that she is focused on growing the county's presence online and putting together a more concerted marketing effort by putting the lodging tax that is paid at local hotels to good use.

She said she has particularly focused her efforts on travel Portland and Travel Oregon and bringing in new tourism groups.

She added that the chamber's outreach efforts have netted Hood River press coverage on the East coast and as a far away as England, including a BBC interview.

The board of commissioners meets next month on May 16.

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