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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Back Porch Bar and Grill owners Blu and Jamie Collins say they may move their restaurant out of Jacksonville if a meals tax is passed.

Showdown in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE — A measure that would impose a 5 percent meals tax in Jacksonville has drawn fierce opposition, with lawn signs by opponents outnumbering supporters’ signs 3 to 1.

Opponents say they have placed 300 lawn signs around town, while those supporting the measure say they will put up 100.

A “Vote No Meals Tax” message plays in rotation on a large electronic display on West Main Street in Medford, visible to traffic coming from Jacksonville. Many businesses in downtown are displaying signs in opposition to the measure.

Petitioners placed the measure on the ballot after the Jacksonville City Council in May imposed a $20 surcharge on utility bills to help fund police services. The surcharge is anticipated to raise about $400,000 annually and will allow the city to shift money from the general fund previously used for police expenses to cover street repairs, parks, historical preservation and to build reserves.

Doug Phillips, who led the effort that got the tax measure on the ballot, said Jacksonville Citizens for Public Safety Funding likely will spend about $3,000 on campaign efforts. Whit Parker, representing organized opposition, said about $6,000 will be spent to defeat the measure.

“It’s deeper than just the meals tax. It’s the whole idea of how you fund city services,” said Phillips. “It’s the council setting charges. The folks have not decided as to how they pay.”

Budget committee members, city councilors and citizens studied the funding issue for years before recommending the council impose the surcharge. Phillips served on the committee.

A meals tax was rejected early in the discussion. During council deliberations, it was noted that a levy vote to fund police services likely would fail. The City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the tax.

“This is a discriminatory tax,” Parker said. “It discriminates against one sector of our economy, which is 14 family-owned restaurants. It expects them to be a financial engine. It’s unfair.”

Parker said he worries that the measure may not provide enough funds, particularly if smoky summers continue to cut into restaurant revenue.

Parker is publisher of the monthly Jacksonville Review, a lifestyle publication. But he hasn’t held back on jumping into town political issues in the 11 years he’s owned the magazine. He’s weighed in on a variety of issues and endorsed political candidates.

Jacksonville Review’s October issue had several opinion pieces and also display ads against the measure. Parker said he invited Phillips to do interviews but Phillips declined, an action the latter confirmed.

Research Phillips did by counting restaurants and seating led him to conclude the tax should produce the funds needed. Restaurant owners have been reluctant to share revenue figures with both opponents and proponents.

“The restaurants are very reluctant to share that information,” said Parker. “It forces them to open their books to city auditors.”

In Oregon, only Ashland and Yachats have meals taxes. Restaurant owners in Jacksonville fear the meals tax will drive away customers and that there may be people who live in the Rogue Valley that will refuse to patronize them because of the tax. Those in favor say the tax spreads costs to tourists who use city services.

Restaurant owner Blu Collins of Back Porch Bar and Grill said he may move his establishment if the tax passes. He moved his business from Ashland two decades ago when that town enacted a meals tax.

Phillips placed an argument in favor of the tax in the Voters’ Pamphlet. But there are seven arguments against placed by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, Mayor Paul Becker, city councilors David Jesser and Cris Garcia, town historian Larry Smith, business owner Linda Graham and Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce President Robert Roos. Each argument costs $200 for placement.

Both sides also have produced printed handouts and mailers to spread their messages. Proponents have talked to people four times in front of the post office, said Phillips.

Phillips and Parker say their campaigns are financed by local donations. Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association is handling the finances for the opponents and assisting in other ways, said Parker. Phillips set up his organization to handle campaign money.

Jacksonville, with a population of 2,985, has 2,432 registered voters in Precinct 10, which covers the city. In the 2016 presidential election, 88 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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