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County commissioners hear public comment from Arthur Babitz, who recommended the language changes.

Hood River County’s 78-cent Public Safety Five-Year Local Option Tax will be on the local ballot for the upcoming May 19 election.

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners finalized the measure after a public hearing on Feb. 18 with two language changes: The phrase “would secure funding for,” which appeared once in the explanatory statement and once in the ballot summary, was replaced with “would retain.”

The changes were recommended during the public hearing by Arthur Babitz, who pointed out that the board had agreed on “secure,” not “secure funding for,” during a previous work session as an effort to be as specific with their language as possible, but the agreed-upon language wasn’t included in the written measure. Babitz recommended “retain” as an even more specific term. “I believe it’s important that there be no ambiguity in what a yes or no vote means and that, when you get an answer from the public, as the board of commissioners, that it tells you exactly what to do.”

The commissioners officially changed the language to Babitz’ recommendation when they approved the motion putting the measure on the ballot.

“I feel we have deliberated at length and I feel comfortable with the language, with the small change,” said Commissioner Karen Joplin. “I feel like we have investigated all opportunities and I’m hopeful.”

“I feel like we spent a lot of time talking about this, finding a number that worked,” said Commissioner Les Perkins. “We came from very different places in the beginning and worked our way to a place where all five of us could support this. I just appreciate the fact that we have a board that can do that and maintain a civil tone.”

The most recent draft of the measure (which does not include the two language changes) can be found in the commissioners’ packet for the Feb. 18 meeting, available through the county website (hover over the “County Departments” tab in the sidebar and click “Board of Commissioners,” then click the “Meeting Agendas and Minutes” link, click “Board of Commissioner Meeting Agendas,” and select “BOC Packet 02.18.20”).

In total, six members of the public gave testimony during the public hearing. All expressed their support for the measure, but some expressed confusion over how the money would be handled and what specifically would be funded.

“I’m going to vote for the measure with the understanding that this is a band aid — an expensive band aid, until we can come up with a sustainable financial future focused more on increasing revenues so that the revenues aren’t so closely tied to the taxpayer,” said Paul Henke, who, along with Babitz, is running for the District-2 position on the Board of Commissioners, currently held by Rich McBride.

One speaker, Dwight Moe, expressed concern over how an additional tax would affect residents and suggested finding an alternative approach that would tax visitors instead of locals. “I think it’s going to make it a little hard on people who are on fixed income,” he said.

“I think that’s the hardest thing for all of us, is going after the taxpayers,” responded Perkins. “There’s just not a lot of options for trying to capture revenue from tourists.”

The county’s Prepared Food and Beverage Tax, which the commission has stated was intended to bring in revenue from tourists, failed 59.45 percent to 40.55 percent on the May 2019 ballot. Because the county’s second measure on that ballot, the 89-cent Public Health and Safety Five-Year Local Option Tax, failed by a smaller margin (51.43 percent to 48.57 percent) the county decided to rework that measure for the May 2020 ballot.

“I do support the 78 cents,” Moe added. “I mean, we’ve got to support something.”

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