At a special meeting held on Jan. 7, the Hood River County Board of Commissioners worked out the details of two proposed tax measures — a prepared food and beverage tax and a local option levy — that the board intends to put on the May 2019 ballot.
County staff estimates that approximately $3.64 million is needed to “properly fund current services over the next five years” — which, added to the county’s $1.6 million deficit, brings the total need up to approximately $5.3 million.
County staff prepared a spreadsheet detailing a number of different tax rates and revenue uses to help the board determine exactly how much revenue the county wants to request and how that raised revenue will be utilized.
The board was able to come to a consensus on specifics for the prepared food and beverage tax: A 5 percent rate, which is expected to raise approximately $1.75 million and, based on the county’s spreadsheet, could be distributed as such:
*Public Safety recreational response, including search and rescue, forest/ATV patrol and marine patrol: $548,498
*Parks, buildings and grounds, and the History Museum: $235,421
*Public Health, including Environmental Health: $129,730
*County Forest, including forest recreational trails: $148,060
*County roads and infrastructure, including road maintenance and snow removal: $3,000
*$100,000 to cover the cost of administering the tax
*$587,515 to go towards filling the deficit
The commissioners agreed on the distribution amounts but asked that the language be reconsidered to specify that the commission’s intent is for this tax to fund visitor services, as visitors will be paying a significant portion of the tax.
While many of the details for the prepared food and beverage tax were worked out in previous meetings, Monday’s meeting was the first time the commission discussed the specifics of the local option levy, and were unable to come to a consensus on the rate and what specifically to use the revenue for.
Commissioner Rich McBride proposed designating the rest of the funds specifically to the Hood River County Sheriff’s department to bring public safety closer to an ideal level, which would then free up the general fund dollars currently funding the sheriff’s department to be used for other departments, such as public health.
“The thing that I think is strong about it is that it’s a single topic: It’s public safety,” McBride said, adding that that specificity will make it easier to sell to the voters.
Overall, the other commissioners expressed support for this type of approach, but Commissioner Karen Joplin added that she worries it’s too specific and doesn’t benefit all county residents equally.
“I’m still leaning towards spreading that buy-in to as many community members as we can,” she said.
She said she could endorse McBride’s proposed approach if the money freed up in the general fund is clearly designated for specific purposes.
The commission was split on whether to go for a lower rate that is more likely to pass — 75 cents to $1 — or to go for a higher rate closer to the county’s actual need — up to $1.58.
Regardless of where the commission decides to allocate the funds generated from the levy or how high the rate is, approximately $1 million would be set aside to fill the hole in the budget.
“I didn’t want to get into a situation where we asked for more than what we need, and I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere close to that,” said Chair Mike Oates.
This special session was Oates’ first official meeting as chair since he was sworn into the position on Dec. 17. His term officially began on the first of the year.
In an earlier interview, Oates said the budget issue is his top priority: “We have some real problems right now and we need to get that straightened out, so everything else had to take a backseat,” he said. “… If we don’t get that solved, a lot of these other things that we need to be doing aren’t going to get accomplished because we don’t have the finances to do a lot of them.”
When Oates asked each commissioner their idea for a rate, Commissioners McBride and Joplin leaned towards rates closer to $1.50 while Commissioner Les Perkins said he wouldn’t go higher than $1.25, and Commissioner Bob Benton said he wouldn’t go above $1.
“If I wasn’t sitting behind this desk, I don’t think I’d be supportive of $1.30 at all,” Benton said, referencing Joplin’s suggested rate.
“It (a lower rate, such as $1) is not exactly what we want, but it sure gets us a long way down that road to where we want to be,” Perkins said, adding that the levy and gives the board an opportunity to reevaluate the rate in five years.
“I think there’s value in asking for what we need,” Joplin said. “I think starting too low (with plans to raise the rate later) has the potential to be detrimental for us. I think we need to ask for what we need and hope our community can help us get to the right spot.”
County Administrator Jeff Hecksel added, “The downside is if we go out for that (higher rate) and it fails, then we’ve still got a problem,” he said, referring to that $1 million that would be set aside to address the budget deficit.
Ultimately, the commission decided to continue the discussion to the work session scheduled before their Jan. 22 regular meeting.
Any ordinances the commission wants to put on the May ballot would have to have their first readings no later than March 4.