Jacksonville meals tax proposal offers a choice

The reactions to a proposed meals tax in Jacksonville are all over the map — from supporters who object to the $20 monthly surcharge on utility bills that will take effect July 1, to opponents who say the tax would hurt local restaurants by keeping diners away. All of that discord over a petition that hasn’t even qualified for the ballot yet.

The city of Jacksonville wants to maintain its police force, which is supported by the general fund, but it also needs money for street repairs, historic preservation — a major issue in a well-preserved Gold Rush town — parks and other needs. City residents already pay $35 a month on their utility bills for fire and emergency medical services, but nothing for police protection beyond property taxes, which supply the general fund. The Police Department consumes $600,000 of the general fund, which totals only $640,000.

The need is clear; the question is where the additional money should come from. The city Budget Committee considered asking voters for a property tax levy of $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but decided it was unclear whether that would pass. Instead, the City Council decided to add the $20 surcharge.

The council has the power to enact the surcharge without a public vote. That angers citizens who believe taxpayers always should approve taxes and fees, but that’s not the way our system of government works. We elect city councilors, county commissioners and other representatives to make those decisions for us. Sometimes we get to vote on taxes, and sometimes we don’t.

So, what’s the answer for Jacksonville’s police budget, and who should bear the burden?

I don’t want to tell Jacksonville residents how to vote, but I do have some observations that might be worth considering. I don’t live in Jacksonville, so I wouldn’t pay the utilities surcharge. I do eat out in Jacksonville from time to time, so a meals tax would affect me.

That’s a big argument for the petition drive to replace the utilities surcharge: Jacksonville attracts a sizable number of visitors, especially during the Britt Music & Arts Festival, and many of those dine in Jacksonville restaurants.

Contrary to arguments I’ve heard, visitors to Jacksonville do benefit from the local constabulary. If they are involved in an automobile crash in town, or if their vehicle is broken into while they are dining or attending a Britt concert, they will be grateful to have a Jacksonville officer respond. So there is a rationale for asking tourists to help foot the bill, just as they do in Ashland, which also has a meals tax.

I’ve also seen arguments that a meals tax is a burden on lower-income residents who might not be able to afford to eat out if it passes. That may be true to a certain extent, but compare a 5 percent meals tax to a $20-a-month surcharge. A household would have to spend $400 a month eating in restaurants to hit $20 in meals tax.

Restaurant owners understandably oppose the tax, fearing their business will be hurt if diners stayed away. I can’t say whether that fear is justified. I don’t think any Ashland restaurants went under when that city’s tax was enacted, although it’s true that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draws far more tourists from sales-tax states than Britt does.

Jacksonville residents have a choice. They can sign the petition giving themselves the opportunity to enact a meals tax, or they can pay the $20 surcharge. If I lived in Jacksonville, I’d opt for more choice rather than less.

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