Meals tax costs Ashland $9 million a year, diminishes community's sustainability

I feel compelled to respond to Jeff Golden's revisionist history about the meals tax (see March 28 Tidings column "And you thought the meals tax was settled"). The proposal did not pass by a narrow margin in March 1993. It won by almost 9 percent. A subsequent recall effort in November 1993 narrowly lost by .05 percent.

In that recall campaign, the argument was made that the tax was imposing an unfair competitive disadvantage on Ashland restaurants. The health of our local economy is vital to the quality of life and sustainability of this community, and this tax is not helping.

Jeff mentions that the tax was opposed by most restaurant owners, many realtors and some vocal citizens, and I find it extraordinary that he tries to lump 49.7 percent of the population into those three categories. He then states that "most of the cranky were restaurant owners ... and realtors wary of permanently reducing the inventory of privately owned property."

For a man who professes to be a consensus builder and allegedly sensitive to differing opinions, Jeff is certainly not shy about mudslinging and name calling. He would probably be cranky too if his livelihood were threatened. The fact is that most restaurant owners work harder in one week than Jeff has in the last five to 10 years (sorry for being catty, but Jeff has just brought out the worst in me).

He also minimizes the fact that people in the Southern Oregon region are "staying away from" Ashland because of the tax. Avoiding sales taxes, however, is a fact of life. There was an article in The New York Times a few months ago about a town across the border in Northern Ireland that has no sales tax. People from as far away as Dublin use buses and carpools to shop in the town and avoid the sales tax in Ireland.

Likewise, retailers and car dealerships in Portland are the biggest opponents to a statewide sales tax because hundreds of thousands of people come from Washington to take advantage of no sales tax in Oregon. It's a fact of life, Jeff, and sticking your head in the sand will not solve it.

This tax definitely costs our local economy, and I've done some rudimentary arithmetic. There are approximately 300,000 people in Jackson and Josephine counties. One percent of that is 3,000. Let's assume that a person who comes to Ashland to eat spends $50 a month in restaurants and shops. That's $600 a year, times 3,000 people is $1.8 million.

So for every 1 percent of the population who makes the conscious decision to save money by not frequenting a locale with a sales tax, this community loses $1.8 million. I have long used the figure of 5 percent, although I've talked with people in Medford who place it at 20 to 25 percent. Assuming 5 percent, this odious tax costs the Ashland community $9 million a year.

Where would that $9 million go? For starters, restaurant owners could cut back on some of their 15-hour days (when's the last time you worked 15 hours a day, Jeff?). They might also be able to afford a starter house in Ashland.

Most importantly, however, they could hire more employees. Many of those employees would be making more in tips and might possibly have enough to afford moving back to Ashland (and bring their kids with them). Local retail stores would also profit and hire more people.

By eliminating the meals tax, we would become overall a much more sustainable community, something that I always thought Jeff was a supporter of.

Jeff ends with the same old scare tactic everyone in the city uses — they will have to raise sewer rates drastically. Again, let's look at the figures. Right now the meals tax brings in $1.8 million, and 60 percent of that is probably from people in Ashland (seriously, the vast majority of the 100-plus establishments are not tourist destinations).

If the sewer rates are raised, citizens will save $1.1 million by not having a meals tax. True, we will have to cover the $700,000 that tourists contribute each year, but surely we can find another way to do that — maybe some motel tax money or a tax on theater tickets (that's the reason most tourists are here, anyway).

In conclusion, Jeff, the meals tax hurts this community in the long run. We're forsaking $9 million in revenue a year for a short term gain of $700,000. It doesn't add up. I urge all citizens to join the effort to defeat the meals tax when it comes up for renewal in 2010, and let's help support the economic sustainability of this community.

Curtis Hayden is a 21-year resident of Ashland and editor/publisher of the Sneak Preview.

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