Hood River County’s two tax measures — a 5 percent Prepared Food and Beverage Tax and a $0.89 Public Health and Safety Local Option Levy — will be on the May 21 ballot, the county commission decided Monday after a short public hearing.
Anticipating a large crowd, the commission moved its regular monthly meeting to the Wy’east Middle School Performing Arts Center, amidst set pieces and props for the ongoing “Mamma Mia!” production. Overall, approximately 40 attended, and eight people gave public testimony.
Those who testified said they were sympathetic to the county’s need for more revenue and, overall, showed support for both measures.
“When programs and people go away, they don’t usually come back,” said Mark Reynolds, remarking that he’s alarmed by the fact that his monthly credit card bill is often higher than his annual property tax. “There’s no free lunch, we have to pay for the services we value,” he said.
City Council Member Kate McBride said that she is saddened by the loss of county services over the years and thanked the commission for their work in getting information out and encouraging people to get involved.
“Allowing us to be able to vote on it is extremely important,” she said.
Former County Chair Ron Rivers stepped up to the podium, this time as a civilian, to thank his former constituents and to offer to answer any questions about the county’s budget situation. “This has been a tough, hard road for everyone in this community,” he said. “I think this community is big enough to know the value of what the county does for us. I think it’s important that we step up.”
Two local restaurateurs — Randy Orzeck, co-owner of Big Horse Brewery and Horsefeathers Restaurant, and Matt Swihart, owner of Double Mountain Brewery and Taproom — both testified that they think the tax unfairly targets their industry.
“The county, unable to get any traction on the 1 percent sales tax, they took to targeting a small but important industry, which is the restaurant industry,” Orzeck said. Reading from a prepared written statement, he expressed concerns about the fairness of the tax and cited studies that showed a food tax does negatively impact restaurant customers and employees.
“I do believe the county needs funding,” Orzeck said. “I just don’t think this is fair, targeting one small community for the county to possibly get a ‘yes’ vote.”
Swihart also expressed concerns about the fairness of the tax, and said that he thinks the tax will negatively impact his staff’s income.
“I totally support more county revenue in a way that’s fair,” he said, adding that the fairest way would be tax reform on a state level, but acknowledged that was beyond the county’s control. “It’s unfortunate that you’ve found yourselves in a place where you’ve targeted my industry for the shortfall,” he said. “I feel this tax is unfair, to tax one industry to support a shortfall.”
Several people spoke out against NORCOR’s contract with ICE, pointing out that 12 percent of the general fund goes towards NORCOR’s services and claiming that the cost of supporting ICE detainees is significantly more than ICE’s reimbursement.
“It’s necessary to remember that we spend large amounts of money to fund NORCOR’s ICE contract,” said Rev. John Boonstra. “We can build a healthy budget when we stop spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on this contract.”
Rev. Judy Zimmerman commented on the unjust conditions ICE detainees face at NORCOR, saying, “If they were prisoners of war, they’d receive better treatment,” and recommending that the county back out of the ICE contract and use the savings for public safety.
Commissioner Bob Benton later clarified that money from the ICE contract in part subsidizes the county’s contribution to NORCOR, and extended an open invitation to NORCOR’s upcoming budget committee meeting.
Ultimately, the commission decided to approve both measures for the May 21 ballot.
“I really appreciate everybody’s input through all of these meetings,” said Commissioner Rich McBride. “These are difficult decisions to make and I believe we are carrying forward with the understanding that these decisions impact people, but the reality is that we have to make these decisions.”
Before continuing on with the remaining agenda, County Chair Mike Oates said, “However any of this turns out, we are all one community … we want to see things work right … if one of these passes, it’ll help a lot; if both of these pass, it’ll help out more. That’s just the position we’re in.”