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Greater share of local room tax revenue would give deputies some relief

Hood River County has been the fastest growing county in the state since 2010. The sheriff’s office has been working on ways to increase staffing needed to keep up with the growing demand for services. One area of focus has been the exponential increase in recreation related services the sheriff’s office has to provide, Sheriff Matt English stated in a press release.

Oregon law requires that all sheriffs respond to search and rescue calls in their counties. Additionally, Oregon sheriff’s run marine programs, forest patrol and off highway vehicle enforcement programs.

“Our personnel do an exceptional job responding to recreational emergencies with the resources we have. The bottom line is, we don’t have nearly enough resources to respond to the increasing volume of calls we’re now seeing.” said English. English went on to explain that there is a direct correlation to tourism. He said the vast majority of people accessing these services are visitors. “Ideally, our local taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for the increased recreational services we need, because they’re not benefiting from them.”

Currently, the sheriff’s office has to pull patrol deputies from their duties to help respond to marine emergencies or staff search and rescue calls. “We routinely have to short our patrol shifts to cover some type of search,“ said Undersheriff Brian Rockett. “That means deputies that need to be out patrolling our communities and responding to criminal calls, are tied up dealing with recreational emergencies.”

“The numbers are staggering,” Marine Deputy Quintin Nelson said. “We will literally see hundreds of people out on the water at one time in a single day.”

This year, the Port of Hood River provided a small amount of funding to provide extra help to the sheriff’s office for additional marine coverage during busy summer weekends.

In December, Sheriff English and staff presented the recreational response issues to the Hood River City Council. The Sheriff asked the council for 15-20 percent, or about $240,000 to $320,000 of the transient room tax (TRT) they are collecting to support programs like marine and search and rescue. Transient room tax is a 9 percent tax collected from hotels and vacation rentals. In the last several years, the City of Hood River has annexed hotels that were within Hood River County proper.

With the annexation came a loss of TRT revenue to the County. The City has seen TRT revenues more than double in the last four years, going from $727,017 in fiscal year 2012-13 to projected receipts of $1,600,000 in the current fiscal year. The addition of the new Naito waterfront hotel could push city revenues near the $2 million mark annually.

English said, “I don’t expect one entity to completely fund the amount of recreational response services we need in Hood River County, but we are looking for a commitment from the stakeholders that are promoting and benefiting from tourism that is the driving force behind this issue."

In working with Deschutes County, Sheriff English noted that Deschutes County appropriated 80 percent of their transient room tax receipts to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office recreational response programs.

The City of Hood River has since declined to help fund the Sheriff’s Office recreational programs.

The Sheriff concluded, “The bottom line is we have to provide these services and we’re committed to finding a way to fund them, so our local taxpayers aren’t shouldering the burden.”

English cited that in the last three years, the HRCSO has taken about 300 search and rescue calls for service. In that time, only two searches were for Hood River County residents. Hood River County ranks 24th out of 36 counties in terms of population, yet ranked in the top fifth for search and rescue missions in 2014. Sheriff’s Office records indicate that almost all of the searches are conducted on United States Forest Service (USFS) land.

The Sheriff’s Office is currently working with the USFS to increase funding. Currently, the office receives about $19,000 a year to fund a seasonal deputy that works three days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Nearly 70 percent of the land in Hood River County belongs to the USFS. National Visitor Usage Monitoring, the system utilized by the USFS to track forest usage, indicates there are over two million individual visits to the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area and 4.9 million individual visits to the Mt. Hood National Forest annually. Parts of both National Forests lie within Hood River County.

The Oregon State Sheriff’s Association has been looking at ways to both raise money for search and rescue as well as recover costs. Current Oregon law only allows an agency to charge $500 for a search and rescue. The fine is a civil penalty that isn’t easily collected. Actual mission costs can quickly soar into the thousands of dollars.

In November, the Sheriff, County Commission Chair Ron Rivers, County Administrator David Meriwether and Marine Deputy Quintin Nelson met with Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) Director Scott Brewen about additional funding. Although there are potential plans to capture additional revenue at a state level from recreational water users, the OSMB, who currently funds most of the Sheriff’s Marine program, isn’t in a position to fully fund additional deputies. For the remainder of this biennium and the following two year cycle, the OSMB was able to allocate an additional $55,000 beginning in July of 2016.

Sheriff’s Office Marine contacts on the Columbia indicate that between 20-25 percent of the contacts are local. The vast majority are from out of the area. “We rescued people from California, Florida and Texas this summer season,“ said Nelson, the lone Marine Deputy for Hood River County. “One of the first questions I ask a person is where they’re from.

“It’s rare that we rescue a local.” Nelson also reported providing marine services to visitors from New Zealand, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada.

“The sad reality is that a lot of the recreational activity visitors are engaging in comes with some level of risk,“ said English. He noted that there were two recreational water deaths in Hood River last year, both were visitors and both were participating in non-motorized activities. “Unfortunately we usually respond to at least one recreational fatality every year whether it’s on the mountain, one of the trail systems or a local waterway. We’re really working on promoting safety, education and prevention but that also requires appropriate staffing levels and resources.”

The Port of Hood River counts vehicles that access their lots. They’re seeing over 350,000 vehicles a year in the three lots they track by the waterfront. In July of 2015 alone, there were almost 68,000 cars that entered the river access parking lots.

“The numbers are staggering,” Nelson said. “We will literally see hundreds of people out on the water at one time in a single day.”

This year, the Port of Hood River provided a small amount of funding to help provide extra help to the Sheriff’s Office for additional marine coverage during busy summer weekends.

In December Sheriff English and staff presented the recreational response issues to the Hood River City Council. The Sheriff asked the Council for 15-20 percent or about $240,000 to $320,000 of the Transient Room Tax (TRT) they are collecting to support programs like Marine and Search and Rescue.

Transient Room Tax is a 9 percent tax collected from hotels and vacation rentals. In the last several years, the City of Hood River has annexed hotels that were within Hood River County proper.

With the annexation came a loss of TRT revenue to the County. The City has seen TRT revenues more than double in the last four years going from $727,017 in fiscal year 2012-13 to projected receipts of $1,600,000 in the current fiscal year. The addition of the new Naito waterfront hotel could push city revenues near the $2,000,000 mark annually.

In working with Deschutes County, Sheriff English noted that Deschutes County appropriated 80 percent of their transient room tax receipts to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office recreational response programs.

The City of Hood River has since declined to help fund the Sheriff’s Office recreational programs.

English said, “I don’t expect one entity to completely fund the amount of recreational response services we need in Hood River County but we are looking for a commitment from the stakeholders that are promoting and benefiting from the tourism that is the driving force behind this issue. The Sheriff concluded, “The bottom line is we have to provide these services and we’re committed to finding a way to fund them, so our local taxpayers aren’t shouldering the burden.”



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