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Our View: Who should pay to operate new jail?

County leaders wisely work ahead for funding options

Published on July 31, 2018 9:36AM

The Astoria Riverfront Trolley passes under the Astoria Bridge with a load of passengers. Most of the money from a new county lodging tax would go to tourism promotion.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

The Astoria Riverfront Trolley passes under the Astoria Bridge with a load of passengers. Most of the money from a new county lodging tax would go to tourism promotion.

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There is little doubt that Clatsop County needs a new jail.

Anyone who takes time to investigate the overcrowded old facility in downtown Astoria is almost guaranteed to come to that conclusion.

The lack of space in the 60-bed jail and the unacceptable revolving-door system has criminals laughing and our hardworking law enforcement officers increasingly frustrated. “Catch-and-release” should remain a fun fishing phrase, not a cynical observation on what happens to lawbreakers in our community.

Voters are being asked to approve a $20 million bond that would cost them 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Sensibly, county commissioners are looking ahead, planning beyond November, when voters will decide whether to move the jail to the former North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton. That would have 148 beds, plus room for expansion.

Should the jail bond pass, a pressing issue for county leaders will be finding the money to operate it.

One option approved last week was a 1 percent lodging tax tacked onto each visitor’s hotel bill. This would generate significant revenue, of which some could be used for jail operations.

Predictably, the concept drew the ire of the hospitality industry, whose advocates worry that ramping up lodging taxes would scare away tourists.

The Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association rightly argue that tourism is a key cornerstone of our North Coast economy. We live in the most desirable place on Earth. People want to visit, and we want to share it with them.

And we have all budgeted for a trip based on advertised hotel prices, only to be annoyed at checkout to discover our daily rate is boosted by additional room taxes.

In approving the tax, the commissioners weighed a crucial factor raised by Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin — the volume of visitors increases crime. That isn’t being rude to tourists; it is a statistical inevitability. Our North Coast population swells by thousands each summer. We should welcome visitors, but with our eyes open to the added burden on law enforcement, plus the full realization that they all use local services and amenities that residents pay for year-round.

Of course they are an easy target for added revenue. But if not tourists, who else should be taxed to help run the jail? There are few other places for budget managers to go that would be acceptable to residents.

Reading the details, the action should actually benefit the tourism and lodging industry.

The county already imposes a 9.5 percent lodging tax in unincorporated areas, in addition to state and city taxes. The new tax will apply within and outside city limits. It will take effect in January and generate an estimated $1.4 million annually in revenue for the county and cities.

But it should be noted that by state law, 70 percent of this revenue must be spent on tourism promotion. Only the remaining 30 percent — estimated at $420,000 annually — can be used for jail operations.

If the local $1.4 million revenue estimate is accurate, that would mean about $980,000 a year for local tourism promotion. We’d be interested in seeing a plan for that additional revenue that includes public education efforts geared at visitors, much like Bend’s “Visit Like a Local” program. It encourages visitors to clean up after themselves, volunteer for trail maintenance, learn how to use a traffic circle and not drink and drive, among other topics.

Three other bonds are on the ballot this fall, for Astoria and Warrenton schools and the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District. Voters have twice rejected jail building proposals, most recently in 2012. This latest jail bond is actually the smallest dollar amount of the four, costing a taxpayer with a $200,000 home about $42 a year.

The idea supported by the one dissenting commissioner, Lianne Thompson, that county leaders should wait on the lodging tax idea until the outcome until the November vote, is far from prudent.

If voters approve the jail Nov. 6 and some partial operational funding is not in place, the board would have just 37 workdays to dream up and approve a different strategy.

That’s unnecessary pressure on a group of five commissioners finishing up its 2018 agenda and gearing up for a significant leadership changeover, with two new members starting work in the new year.


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