Sales tax: County should consider scaling it back; also, hit the trail with a modest proposal

Hood River County’s intentions are good when it comes to the 2 percent sales tax idea, and it has done a reasonably good job of demonstrating need between the late January mailer and county administrator Jeff Hecksel’s description of the county’s fiscal straits, prior to the Feb. 5 hearing.

The tax proposal (see news article from Feb. 7 edition at aims to capture money from tourists, not only from goods but also services like event admission and recreational gear rentals. Groceries, medical items, and fuel would be exempt from the tax.

For the plan to move forward, the board needs to vote on whether to put the tax question on an upcoming election ballot — leaders are considering the May Primary election. Hood River County voters will have the final say on the measure’s passage.

Neither of Hood River County’s largest revenue sources — timber money and property taxes — have kept up with rising costs to run the government, and since 2006, timber revenue is down 36 percent. Property taxes cannot be raised above three percent due to state law — the county’s current rate is $1.41 per assessed $1,000, ninth lowest of Oregon’s counties.

The public has another opportunity to weigh in in the subject at 6 p.m. on Feb. 20, three days before the Feb. 23 deadline for placing the proposal on the ballot.

The first hearing, on Feb. 5, drew a — mostly — standing room crowd. Most speakers said they oppose the idea, or want it modified.

Kudos to the county for hearing peoples’ calls for a larger venue. It will be at Hood River Valley Adult Center.

So: a larger venue — how about smaller tax?

A variety of 1 percent or 1.5 percent ideas were put forth at the first hearing, and the board is likely to hear them again. It is a concept worth exploring.

Two significant and nettlesome drains on public resources are, first, the rising expenses born by Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) benefits, and second, the high demand placed by out-of-towners on public safety agencies’ budgets. What if a portion of the solution addressed both things?

Among the pressing needs explained at the Feb. 5 hearing was that facing Sheriff Matt English and his paid staff and cadre of search and rescue volunteers (primarily Crag Rats Mountain Rescue) as well as neighboring agencies. Local residents account for one out of 100 people in need of search and rescue in the county, pointing to a major gap not just in funding but in knowledge among the greater public — and the ability to reach those people with information before they walk up the trail.

In the aftermath of the 2017 Eagle Creek fire, the Forest Service has for months stationed people as monitors to restrict access at road intersections and park and trailhead entrances that are closed and out of bounds, primarily for safety reasons. That’s a costly measure for the state, but for Hood River County, what about a similar model at trailheads this summer, a measure that involves less cost?

Ask for volunteers among the PERS ranks to volunteer for 10-20 hours a month as friendly greeters at the trailheads, providing safety information and ensuring that users are adequately equipped. It might serve to put to further good some of the retirees who are drawing healthy PERS payments. The effort could be focused on the two most chronic rescue access points: Eagle Creek and Pacific Crest Trail.

Given the wide appeal of the trails and waterfalls, this cadre could be drawn from not just the Gorge but throughout Oregon, starting with the commuter-close Portland area.

Costs involved — mileage, a per diem and training — would be minimal compared to calling out the Crag Rats and deputies to haul someone off a cliffside.

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