Curry County commissioners agreed to put two advisory questions on the May ballot, asking voter’s opinion about taxing marijuana grows and, separately, restaurants and other prepared food.
County commissioners are trying to find a permanent, sustainable source of revenue to fill general fund coffers. Money in that fund pays for basic county services, including law enforcement, which for the past decade has had to make do on an increasingly shrinking general fund budget.
Ballot advisory questions are non-binding — they’ve been equated with surveying people’s opinions — and this one would, if approved, allow county officials to craft details regarding tax rates, anticipated revenue and how the money would be spent.
The question would then go back to the voters for approval.
Commissioners had to approve the decision to place the questions on the ballot contingent on them approving reinstatement of an ordinance that even allows such questions to be posed to voters. That ordinance was eliminated years ago when former boards updated county ordinances.
Commissioners had until yesterday — Feb. 22 — to get the questions to the county clerk to make the May ballot deadline, so reinstating the old ordinance allowing advisory questions had to be done as an emergency order.
The marijuana grow tax didn’t get near the attention the consumption tax proposal did during this Wednesday’s discussion. However, Gold Beach resident Jeff Barnes reiterated his disapproval of it, claiming numbers presented earlier by a Josephine County commissioner were inaccurate and there isn’t enough marijuana grown in Curry County to make it worthwhile.
That proposed legislation is still being altered at the state, possibly to only pertain to marijuana products shipped out of county — bringing the amount of tax revenue generated here down even further, he noted.
Prepared food tax
Citizens appeared more concerned about the proposed consumption tax, outlined by former interim County Administrator John Hitt, whose contract the commissioners also approved Wednesday.
Hitt will work part time as a planning services contractor, helping with special projects such as these, and in the community development department.
The consumption tax proposal, still in its infancy, is called the 15-15 Consumption Tax Concept and is based on a 2 percent tax on foods consumed in restaurants, prepared and packaged foods at delis and possibly others. Regular grocery store foods would not be affected and there would be exemptions, although those have yet to be determined.
Commissioner Court Boice said he believes up to two-thirds of the revenue generated under such a proposal would come from visitors and Del Norte County residents who routinely shop in Oregon to avoid the 7.5 percent California sales tax.
Hitt said his research indicated out-of-state shoppers and other visitors might bring in about a third of the sales revenue to the county.
Tax or fail
A few citizens spoke out against the proposal, saying a sales tax is regressive, hitting the poorest and elderly the hardest.
Homeless advocate Mary Rowe suggested the board create a board after the advisory vote — assuming it is approved by voters — to determine exemptions to avoid harming the poorest in the community.
“I don’t want to burden the taxpayers who invest in homes and businesses,” said Commissioner Chris Paasch, referring to property tax proposals that have yet to win voter approval. “Everyone who uses county resources should have to pay taxes fairly; we all have to help contribute to the tax base of the county.”
Hitt noted that continuing to operate the county on a “status quo” budget is doomed to fail in the future.
“We have decreasing revenues and increasing expenses,” he said. “At some time, those two points will cross, and we’ll get further and further behind.”
He cited two areas in Oregon — Ashland and Pacific County — that have consumption taxes. Ashland brings in about $3 million a year in revenue, and Pacific County, an area more similar to Curry County, brings in $1.7 million a year on a 1.5 percent tax.
Hitt said Curry County’s retail sales, based on the 2012 Census, show the area grosses about $300 million a year. If exemptions for food, pharmaceuticals and other necessities are removed from the equation, gross sales are about $250 million. With a 1.5 percent tax, that could bring $2.3 million to Curry County coffers.
“This is not a tax where one size fits all,” Hitt said. “Ashland’s may not work here; Pacific County’s may not be appropriate for us.”
Gold Beach resident Jeff Barnes didn’t think either will work here.
Barnes, too, cited its regressive nature and how it would affect the poor, working poor, seniors and veterans. He also pointed out that Ashland has 247 restaurants and attracts thousands of people for months on end to its Shakespeare Festival.
“It’s absolutely, patently unfair and wrong to impose this on the people of Curry County,” Barnes said. “You can look for those numbers (from a food bank presentation delivered just prior to the discussion) to double. People who are eating 25 days a month will be eating 20 days a month.”
Details regarding the tax rate and which exemptions would be permitted would be figured out, possibly by an appointed committee, after voters approve the general idea of implementing such a tax. Another citizen pointed out that unless the exemptions are clear on even an advisory ballot, the untrusting voters of Curry County might well reject even its idea.
Spending the revenue
The 15-15 proposal is named for how the estimated $3.5 million in revenue could be spent, Boice said.
The preliminary idea is to have 15 percent apiece go toward law enforcement, opening the emergency room at Curry Health Network’s clinic in Brookings, replacing the failing communications equipment used by emergency services throughout the county and developing county parks.
Ten percent could go toward visitor promotion and repaying the Road Capital Improvement Reserve fund from which past commissioner boards have borrowed to fund the sheriff’s patrol department. And 5 percent would be allocated each to economic development and housing and water infrastructure projects in Langlois and Port Orford.
Administration of the tax would take 6 percent and the remaining 4 percent would go to the county’s general fund.
“There is no other place to get money,” Boice said. “Not property taxes; we can’t log our way out. This needs to be on the ballot before the state passes a sales tax and then we’re out and would be very unlikely to ever have another opportunity.”
Voters will also decide in May whether to approve a 7 percent transient lodging tax that, if approved, would help fund tourism promotion, law enforcement and the fairgrounds in Gold Beach.
The last TLT tax presented to voters narrowly failed, but Boice is holding out high hopes voters will approve this one.
“We have to get our spending under control,” he said of expenditures in the past year he feels are questionable. “We need to gain back trust with the citizens.”