County drops May bid for sales tax

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners decided after a second hearing Tuesday night to abandon a proposal asking voters in the May election for a countywide sales tax.

A scaled down 1.25-percent tax plan came before commissioners Feb. 20, but the panel unanimously moved not to put the tax question on the spring ballot. Instead, the board said they will mull various proposals, aiming for the November election.

The tax would have paid for services amid the county’s impending $1.6 million budget shortfall. It was originally pitched as a 2-percent sales and admission tax, with exemptions for groceries, gas and medical items. The general sales tax would have been the first of its kind in Oregon.

But the tax drew criticism at both hearings the county held — Feb. 5 at county chambers, and Feb. 20 at Hood River Valley Adult Center. Residents said the tax would burden small businesses and low-income families, and deter tourism.

Near the outset of Tuesday night’s hearing, County Administrator Jeff Hecksel recommended commissioners drop plans for the May ballot.

“Given the current tax proposal will not fully address the county’s financial situation, and the lack of time required to meet election deadlines, it is recommended the Board take no action on the proposal currently being considered,” Hecksel’s written report said.

The 1.25-percent version of the tax would have raised $2.25 million per year.

According to the commission, existing backlogs constitute a larger issue than the $1.6 million gap points to — closer to $3.5 million. Those numbers will need a hard look, they said.

Testimony on Feb. 20 focused more on suggestions than grievances. The larger venue drew well over 100 people.

Pat McAllister, Hood River Supply president and CEO, said he believes in “progressive” sales taxes some other states have implemented, but not Oregon’s previous attempts. He said the county’s proposal doesn’t address the “800-pound gorilla” of looming Public Employee Retirement System costs.

Carlos Cornieles, of Kite the Gorge school, seemed on the fence and asked the county to present more detailed information. He commended the sheriff’s marine patrols and their Columbia River rescues.

Paul Jones, CEO of WyEast Timber Services, recommended the county focus more on staffing its forestry department.

Commissioners delved into staffing issues, following a critical comment about public employee salaries.

“If you’re underpaying people and you’re not comparable to other entities around you, you’re in a downward spiral,” Commissioner Les Perkins said.

Sheriff Matt English said across the board, pay at positions in his department lag $10,000 behind bordering governments. Due to lack of manpower, in cases deputies have to patrol the 533-square-mile county on their own.

Search and Rescue also poses issues. English said 94 percent of rescues statewide involve out-of-county residents, and “we’re more like 100 percent honestly.”

English said he has sought more deputies for years, but the county couldn’t afford the request — most state and federal agencies echoed the sentiment. Regardless, he plans to ask for four more deputies this cycle.

“I’m not telling you to vote for this tax, I’m not telling you not to. But we’ve got to pay for public safety in some form,” English said.

During deliberations, commissioners said the tax plan’s not ready.

“I don’t feel confident moving this forward to put on the ballot,” Perkins said. “Some of the reasons are the information we heard from you and our inability to provide the information requested.”

He said the county would dig into data on the deferred maintenance side, and work on educating the public.

Commissioner Karen Joplin asked for public involvement and said, “This is your county, these are your services. We’re just here as advocates for you … this is your decision.”

Chair Ron Rivers said, “This is something that the community is going to have to get their hands around if they want to move toward the future and see what they want to be, because if you don’t get involved and tell us — it’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be awful.”

A portion of the night’s meeting became a back-and-forth dialogue over how to generate revenue for county services.

Perkins said forestry is important — and the county is still eyeing local timber sales — but they operate on a conservative “sustainable yield,” which doesn’t allow major cutting for immediate financial gain. Energy projects came and went, he said, such as the “unpopular” Middle Mountain wind farm proposal.

Separate taxing districts, such as one to pay for public safety, also came up. The board said they will consider those mechanisms. The sales tax, however, was intended to divert some of the burden away from property owners and onto tourists, the panel felt.

Budget decisions for the upcoming fiscal year emerge this spring. The board will hold monthly work sessions on Mondays about the county revenue picture; the first budget meeting will be in April.

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