City officials look beyond 'ill feelings' over renewal of tax

Following Tuesday's passage of the meals tax extension, city officials said they hoped community members would move past the animosity that arose in recent months over the issue.

Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who supported the tax's renewal, said both sides worked hard to put information before the voters.

"I want us now to pull together as a community and move forward," he said. "I hope there are no ill feelings."

Some Ashland residents who favored the tax's renewal boycotted the establishments of restaurant owners who spoke out against the tax. Lemhouse said he opposes such boycotts, and doesn't believe people should be punished for voicing their views.

Adding to restaurant owners' unhappiness over the tax, some Ashland residents as well as residents of surrounding towns said during the campaign they don't dine out in Ashland because of the tax. The fierce debate over the tax's renewal likely increased awareness among Rogue Valley residents that Ashland has a 5 percent tax on prepared foods and drinks.

"I think the quality of the food and service at Ashland restaurants will override that," Lemhouse said.

At a press conference last week, a group of local business owners and employees advocated that the city of Ashland look at other revenue sources for funding the sewage plant upgrade debt. One proposal was to sell the city-owned Imperatrice property, an 829-acre block of land across Interstate 5 from Ashland. The Jackson County Assessor's Office has put the market value of that land at $7.6 million.

Ashland City Councilor Kate Jackson, who also supported the meals tax's renewal, said she doubts that land, which is zoned for agricultural use, could fetch that price. Even if the city could sell it for $5 million, the majority of the sewage plant debt would remain to be paid off, she said.

The principle on the sewage plant debt as of June was $17.6 million.

Jackson said the meals tax renewal has reaffirmed her faith in Ashland voters that they appreciate city services.

"They supported the meals tax renewal in a big way. It's tough to replicate that revenue source," Jackson said.

City officials had said sewage bills could rise by 60 percent to make up for lost revenue if the meals tax renewal failed.

Voters approved expanding the use of the meals tax from paying past sewage plant upgrade debt and buying park land, to also paying for future sewer system improvements and allowing the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission to steer money toward park development and improvements.

"We'll be very responsible with how we use the money," Parks Commissioner JoAnne Eggers said.

Among other options, meals tax money could help fund the development of park land along lower Ashland Creek and another parcel on upper Clay Street, as well as pay for land that is in the community-created open space plan, Eggers said.

The open space plan is a wish-list of areas residents would like to acquire for parks, open space and trails.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said he is optimistic about the new flexibility the Parks Commission will have in using its share of the meals tax revenue, as well as relieved that the renewal didn't fail and create a big hole in the city's budget.

Stromberg said he realizes that people who were opposed to the tax are feeling disappointed about the results.

He said he hopes the city of Ashland can help the business community. The city recently launched a process to create an economic development strategy. A key component could be to find ways to boost visitation to Ashland during the off-season, when restaurants, hotels and other businesses suffer from a loss of customers, Stromberg said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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