The real cost of the meals tax

After hearing the proponents of the sales tax on food constantly give anecdotal evidence on how Ashland restaurants have grown exponentially over the last 16 years of the meals tax, I thought it would be instructive to check the data.

I went back to the restaurant guide in the Ashland Sneak Preview for March 1993 (when the sales tax on food was voted on), which listed every restaurant in town. I counted 78 of them. I did not count coffeehouses, dessert shops or grocery store delis, just restaurants.

I then went to the 2009 phone book and, using the same methodology, compared that to today's restaurants. There are 77 of them. That is a net loss of 2 percent.

Meals tax proponents like to claim that Ashland has the highest percentage of restaurants in the state of Oregon, but amazingly we don't even beat Grants Pass. There is also a Sneak Preview in Grants Pass, and I used the same methodology for that village. In 1993 there were 69 restaurants, and in 2009 there were 100, a 45 percent increase.

The growth Grants Pass experienced in the last 16 years — in this clean industry, which provides a lot of jobs to working families — is what you would expect from a tourist-based economy. Ashland did not show that growth, and the biggest reason is the presence of a sales tax, which drives a lot of people away.

Over the last 16 years, proponents of the meals tax have constantly thrown out figures which we now know are based solely on anecdotes and wishful thinking. They have no basis whatsoever in reality.

They like to point to the increase in meals tax revenues as "proof" that restaurants are thriving. Let's look at their "proof." In 1995, $1.4 million was collected from the sales tax on food. In 2008 it was $1.9 million.

The cost of living increase from 1995 to 2009 was 66 percent. Using those figures from the federal government, meals tax revenues should have been $2.3 million in 2008. Why the loss?

Because Ashland restaurants have stagnated and barely survived over the last 16 years, thanks only to the citizens of Ashland and the tourists from California who come for the plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A recent phone survey showed that Ashland restaurants have been shunned by 51.8 percent of the people in the surrounding region, primarily because of the sales tax on food, and the economic impact is immeasurable.

The citizens of Ashland should be aware that they have been sold a bill of goods that has greatly harmed the local economy. I estimate the loss to be $30 million a year, but maybe my figures are off a million or two. Even if they were off 50 percent, can we really afford a loss of $15 million a year to this economy?

I respectfully ask that everyone vote no in November on the upcoming extension of the meals tax. When this tax is eliminated, it will provide an untold number of jobs for countless working families in this town.

Curtis Hayden is a 20-year resident of Ashland and is editor of the Sneak Preview, a monthly magazine.

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