County reviews budget workshop results

Elizabeth and Elliana Turner vote on potential revenue options at the county’s Oct. 24 budget workshop in Odell using a series of colored dots.

After passing through several information stations, budget workshop attendees were asked to rank five potential revenue options:

Continue to reduce spending and services, such as sheriff patrol, parks and trails maintenance, passport processing, land use enforcement, juvenile counseling and reformation services, public operating hours for certain departments, and more.

County operating levy: A property tax used to fund operations and expenses such as public safety, parks and trails, public health and veterans’ services. A $1.50/$1000 rate would raise about $3 million, $1/$1,000 would raise about $2 million, and $0.50/$1,000 about $1 million.

County capital levy: A property tax to fund capital assets such as facilities, building improvements, infrastructure, land acquisition and capital equipment. $1.50/1,000 would raise about $3 million; $1/1000 would raise about $2 million, and $.50/1,000 about $1 million.

Prepared food and beverage sales tax (excluding alcohol): Amounts collected that exceed county budget requirements would be rebated via a property tax. A 5 percent rate would raise approximately $2 million, a 4 percent rate would raise about $1.6 million, about $1.2 million at 3 percent, $800,000 at 2 percent and $400,000 at 1 percent.

Sales tax (excluding groceries and Rx drugs): Amounts collected that exceed county budget requirements would be rebated via a property tax. A 2 percent rate would raise approximately $4 million, a 1.5 percent rate about $3 million, and 1 percent about $2 million.

After getting the results back from two budget workshops held during the fall, Hood River County intends to pursue a food and beverage tax and an operating levy.

The county held two budget workshops in October and November to inform the public about the county’s extensive budget problems and to get input on potential solutions, and, on Monday, the county commission held a work session to go over the input they received from these workshops.

Attendees were each given four colored dots — green for their first choice, blue for second, yellow for third and red for fourth — to vote for their preferred solutions (see sidebar for details).

In total, an estimated 45 community members attended the Oct. 24 workshop in Odell, and about 65-75 attended the Nov. 8 workshop in Hood River, though Paige Rouse noted that some attendees did not sign in.

“This is just a very small percentage (of the total population), but as far as a public meeting as a whole, that was a very good turnout,” Rouse said.

Between both workshops, the county counted a total 125 green dots, 114 blue, 101 yellow and 106 red; but Rouse said that some chose not to vote on solutions, “citing reasons like the boards already reflected their preferences, or it was awkward to vote in public.” The concept of voting with the dots also confused some, she said.

Overall, attendees voted that they liked the 5 percent prepared food and beverage sales tax the best, which would raise approximately $2 million for the general fund per year.

The 2 percent sales tax, which would raise about $4 million per year, was also popular; and the operating levy options were most voters’ second or third choices. The capital levy options were unpopular; and continuing to reduce spending and services was overwhelmingly the least-popular option.

“What it (the workshop results) showed to me is that not everyone is opposed to being taxed ... if there is a need, I think the public is actually okay with being taxed,” said Rouse.

The popularity of the food and beverage tax and sales tax options was attributed to a public interest in getting visitors to contribute to county services that they benefit from.

“But also,” said Commissioner Karen Joplin, “local community members need to take some responsibility for the services provided here …we need to focus on creating some sort of balance that seems fair.”

County staff will pursue further development of a 5 percent prepared food and beverage tax and get started on putting together a draft for an operating levy, potentially with a rate of $1/$1000.

The county’s General Fund budget for the 2018/19 fiscal year is approximately 12.8 million and its expected revenue is $11.2 million — $1.6 million short.

A retail marijuana tax that would add an estimated $20,000 per year to the General Fund was placed on the November ballot and passed; but the county anticipates it will need to raise a bare minimum of $1.6 million to avoid more cuts — and after that, an additional $1.7 million would be needed to bring public safety back up to an effective level, and $1.4 million more to bring all other services up to appropriate levels — for a total need around $4.8 million.

“That $1.6 million is what keeps the county from sliding backwards,” said County Administrator Jeff Hecksel. The focus going forward will be filling in that initial hole, then bringing services up to effective levels from there.

“It’s really important how this is parsed out,” said Commissioner Les Perkins, referring to where specifically the money from the food and beverage tax and the operating levy will go.

Significant thought has already been put into the food and beverage tax, with a first draft already in place (For more information, see the article in the Oct. 2 edition of the Hood River News). Theoretically, the money raised from that will go towards parks and trails, environmental health, and recreation response — which includes forest patrol and search and rescue — as well as the cost for administering the tax.

The county has not yet developed a draft operating levy, and it has not yet been decided where those funds will go.

Hecksel said that, for these ordinances to make it onto the May ballot, the first reading will need to occur in early March. Hecksel said he could not promise that drafts could be ready by the commission’s December meeting, but can have something ready for a special work session in January.

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