The undesirable aspects of the meals tax

I do not support extension of the Ashland meals tax. It hurts local businesses, doesn't relieve Ashland's taxpayers of any of the cost burden for the sewage treatment upgrades, drives away restaurant and meeting business and doesn't provide the benefit in park and open space acquisition that was the main argument advanced for the original tax. Rather, it mostly succeeds in increasing the tax revenues available to be spent as the City Council wishes.

I base the last assertion on three considerations. First, most of Ashland's taxpayers seem to be under the impression that once park land or open space is acquired by the city, it is thereafter forever protected (barring the occasional land exchange for a more desirable parcel). This impression is, however, incorrect. Two large parcels that make up the majority of Lithia Park were acquired under a section of the city charter that protects them in perpetuity unless the citizens vote to dispose of them. All other parks and open spaces have been, and will be, acquired under a different section of the city charter, one which leaves their potential disposal to the discretion of the City Council.

Accordingly, if the City Council encounters what it considers a high priority project, it can and will sell park land to fund the project if there isn't enough money in the general fund to pay for it. In fact, the city appears to view Ashland's parks and open space as ultimately being a savings account in which to store taxpayer money until it's needed in times of tax revenue shortage. We discovered that fact when plans to sell part of Westwood Park to a developer became public. Funds from that sale were intended to assist the city in buying land for affordable housing on Clay Street — apparently a very high priority to the City Council, even if not to a majority of Ashland's taxpayers.

Second, the meals tax renewal proposal eliminates a requirement that the portion of the meals tax revenues designated for Parks and Recreation be used only for park and open space acquisition. Instead, the revenue could be used for any Parks and Recreation expenses, including operations. Since the Parks and Recreation Commission no longer has separate taxing authority, its funding comes directly from the general fund and is granted annually by vote of the City Council. Removing the "land acquisition only" restriction from the meals tax would enable the City Council to have more tax money to spend, simply by underfunding the Parks and Recreation Department's requested budget by an amount equal to its expected share of the next year's meals tax receipts. Parks and Recreation would then make its budget whole with the tax receipts, while the City Council would have that additional amount in the general fund to spend as it chooses.

Third, the proposed meals tax would be extended until 2030, far beyond the time when the sewage treatment upgrade costs that led to raising the original tax by 400 percent are supposed to have been retired. Thus, the meals tax extension really turns into just another generic tax increase, rather than one that is targeted to a specific urgent need.

I've never been reflexively against taxation, but the city and some advocates of the meals tax extension have been less than forthcoming about the many undesirable aspects of this proposal. This is one tax that should not be renewed.

Keith Baldwin moved to Ashland four years ago from Stamford, Conn., after retiring from IBM.

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