Meals tax proponents point to park lands

North Mountain Park, with its popular Nature Center, demonstration gardens, playing fields and trails along Bear Creek, is one of myriad parks whose land was purchased through the Ashland's 5 percent tax on prepared meals and beverages.

Popular among voters when first approved in 1993, the levy is up for renewal Nov. 3 but faces staunch opposition from local restaurants experiencing hardships in the current recession.

Measure 15-95 would extend the tax to 2030 and allow 20 percent to be used for parks acquisition and capital improvements.

The rest would be used to continue paying off a loan that upgraded the wastewater treatment facility and for capital improvements.

The original levy was a 1 percent tax to buy open space for parks. That tax has generated $4.6 million to buy land for open space, according to the city.

The City Council soon added another 4 percent to the tax to upgrade wastewater treatment to meet stricter standards for what can be dumped into creeks and rivers. For fish health, wastewater can't have phosphorus, which nourishes oxygen-gobbling algae. The 4 percent part of the meals tax has generated $19.5 million for the large, modern plant below Nevada Street, at the confluence of Ashland and Bear creeks.

Besides North Mountain Park, whose 34 acres was purchased for $340,000 with the meals tax in the mid-1990s, several other key parcels of parkland have been funded at least in part by the levy. The city rescued 271 acres of forestland above town, making it into Siskiyou Mountain Park, a large and integral part of its trail system and viewshed. The handy and much-loved 1.7-acre Railroad Park on A Street was bought for $195,000, as were the vast views and peaceful trails of 26-acre Strawberry Hald Park, which were snared for $882,000.

"If you look back at the amount of property bought and how it's escalated in price since then, well, without it, we wouldn't have had the funds to purchase a lot of those parks," said parks Superintendent Steve Geis of the meals tax. "Once they're sold and developed, there's not a lot of chance to get them back. It was an opportune time to purchase them."

In this decade, the city went on to buy Scenic Park and two as-yet-undeveloped parcels, the 7 acres by Ashland Creek on Hersey (site of the present community garden) and a small parcel off Chitwood Street in the south end of town.

Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw, who championed creation of the meals tax, said it has helped solidify property values by improving livability. And the town's 350,000 tourists, who create a considerable impact on the wastewater treatment plant, help pay for its improvements.

"Culinary and outdoor attractions are the drawing cards in making towns among the most livable — and, for Ashland, open space has become the most important drawing card of attracting people to Ashland," said Shaw. "As national parks were America's great idea, open space was Ashland's great idea."

The meals tax enabled Ashland to put in tertiary treatment with a membrane filtration system, so its wastewater is "highly treated effluent" that's almost as good as drinking water, says Jim Olson, public works director.

The upgrade cost $31 million, with $11 million in interest and $4 million in fees, for a total of $46 million, said Shaw. Much of this was handled by a $23 million loan from the state Department of Environmental Quality. The meals tax helps address that debt.

New regulations from the DEQ a year ago will require cooling of wastewater in summer before it goes in streams and, said Olson, "it will be an additional effort and cost to cover that."

"We've got a pretty good wastewater treat plant now," said city Finance Director Lee Tuneberg. "The odor is terrible in some other cities — and the people who visit help pay for it."

Revenues from the meals tax have been $300,000 a year less than debt service since 2002, said Tuneberg, "so we have to find other revenue streams to pay the debt service and that comes from user rates and fees."

If the levy isn't renewed by voters, "rates will rise significantly," noted Tuneberg. "We don't know how much or what class of user, that is, residential, commercial, industrial, governmental user." City officials estimate commercial users would see a 63 percent hike.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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