There are no exciting bare-knuckle battles between candidates, or highly contested moral questions about ganja, gays or guns, but there are four important funding measures on this week's ballot that will determine the flow of tens of thousands of dollars—and, if the measures pass, help communities in Central Oregon grow.
Measure 16-69: Rural fire protection district renewal levy
Measure 16-69 renews the current funding (at $.069 per $1,000 assessed property value) for 24/7 fire and medical staff and replacement of equipment in the Crooked River Ranch RFPD as the costs of these operations continue to increase. The renewal would last through 2018. We say keep the funding rolling. Vote YES.
Measure 9-94: Increase in Bend's temporary lodging tax
Let's be clear: We approve an increase in the Transient Room Tax for the City of Bend, as proposed by Measure 9-94 (not to be confused with Measure 9-96 for a similar room tax increase in Deschutes County, which we discuss later). In fact, we think that the TRT for the City of Bend should be more ambitious.
The proposal is to increase the fee charged to visitors staying in City of Bend hotels and resorts from 9 to 10.4 percent over two years, a modest increase—and an especially modest proposal considering that the rate hasn't increased since 2003, while cities like Portland and Boulder have room taxes in the mid-teens.
What's more, we believe that funds are wisely earmarked: It is estimated that the tax increase will bring in approximately $650,000 annually, with $300,000 designated for tourism promotion (particularly winter season tourism), $200,000 going to public safety, and the remaining $150,000 earmarked for the promotion of arts-related tourism. Emergency services clearly need the additional funds, and a dollar spent on marketing tourism can easily be expected to double or triple itself in tourist revenue here.
Bottom line: Yes, we believe that this is a reasonable request to increase the room tax, and that finding funding from largely external dollars (i.e., tourists staying at local hotels) is a smart consideration, and moreover, that the funds are earmarked as a great investment in the community.
Where we are concerned is that the details for figuring out who will decide how these funds are spent and the mechanics about how they are spent are far from settled, even though the measure goes to voters in less than a week.
When questioned, the initiative's lead proponent, Visit Bend CEO Doug La Placa, didn't disagree that the mechanisms for distributing the funds were not complete, but he did tell us that we simply need to "take a leap of faith."
That is troubling.
Although proponents have had a year to work out details, they have not yet even figured out who will decide how funds are spent—and yet they want us to trust them they will be efficient about putting together a solid and fair process. There are some basic ideas—like setting up either a nonprofit that receives grant-like applications for the funding, or allowing the Arts and Culture Alliance take on that task, likely with a subcommittee comprised of members of the local arts community—which, to us, seems like a plan that could easily trip over conflicts of interest; essentially the very same entities that would be requesting the funds would be the same ones deciding how to spend them.
We certainly don't agree that a ballot measure should be a leap of faith into the fog.
Voters deserve a more complete plan to assure that these funds will be governed efficiently and money spent effectively. Consider an analogous scenario: A year from now, an arts organization requests funds from the TRT coffers. We expect that the decision-making body for those funds—whomever that may be—would request a clear plan and details about the project, and more than a simple explanation, "we want funds because we do good work; trust us."
We certainly agree that such funding is important—and, with reservations, endorse a "yes" vote on Measure 9-94, and hope that this leap of faith finds solid ground on which to land. Vote YES.
Measure 9-96: Increase in Deschutes County Transient Room Tax
Measure 9-96 is a companion piece to 9-94. Like 9-94, it increases TRT, but only by 1 percent, and only those hotels and lodging facilities in Deschutes County but outside the cities (e.g., Bend, Redmond, Sisters and La Pine) will be subject to the tax jump. Said more specifically, the measure attaches an additional one percent to the existing 7 percent TRT for places like Sunriver Resort, Seventh Mountain Resort and Tethrow.
But unlike 9-94, which has ambiguity about how the funds will be spent, 9-96 outlines exactly who will get the money, and how. The assurance, though, still doesn't make this measure a slam-dunk.
Before providing our concerns about 9-96, let's back up a couple steps so that we can take a flying leap into this one: The current 7 percent TRT levied against lodging in Deschutes County (but outside the cities) pulls roughly $2 million in annual funds for the Sheriff's office, and $1 million for the Central Oregon Visitors Association (COVA). COVA, in turn, spends those funds to market and support tourism throughout the county. All good, right?
The proposed 1 percent increase would go directly to the Deschutes County Fairgrounds and Expo Center; you know, the place where there are rodeos and monster trucks, and where bands like Cheap Trick play. This funding is listed as "marketing"—but unlike 9-94, which will presumably be spent on billboards and TV ads in Seattle and Northern California—these funds are earmarked for business-to-business advertising, funding and marketing schemes to draw more shows and events to the County Fairgrounds and Expo Center.
But again, before we offer our endorsement, here's the lay of the land at the fairgrounds: During 51 of each year's 52 weeks, the venue leases its space to various events such as monster truck shows, RV expositions and the circus (the one-week exception is reserved for the County Fair, which is run by the Fair and Expo Center; the other events are simply put on by external promoters and event managers). What's important to note is that during those 51 weeks, the Expo Center is woefully under-utilized, running at about a 50 percent vacancy rate, according to Dan Despotopulos, the Manager for the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center.
Despotopulos has spent the past 14 years leading the Fair &Expo Center. Looking vaguely like a Greek Bill Murray, he is friendly and enthused about filling out the venue's potential.
"We provide more heads in beds than anyone," says Despotopulos, quaintly articulating the massively positive economic impact that the Expo Center and its shows have on the northern area of the county—with most of those tourism dollars flowing into Redmond. For example, a BMX event this summer brought in 2,500 participants, which translated to approximately 1,200 hotel rooms rented. All told, the events at the Fair & Expo Center generate a reported $28 million annually in the local economy.
All this sounds great—a small investment for a massive return to local hotels and restaurants.
But here's the curious part for us: Why would places like Sunriver Resort and Seventh Mountain support—or at least not actively oppose—the proposed hike? They do not stand to directly benefit from the increased traffic and number of shows at the Expo Center. Few attendees at the Monster Truck Bonanza will travel 50 miles south to stay at Sunriver Resort. The financial benefits for this countywide TRT flow directly to the areas in and around Redmond, while relying most heavily on places in the south county like Sunriver Resort, for capital.
Odd? We thought so.
The common logic for this tacit support, confirmed by off-the-record interviews with some of the players, is that if 9-96 passes and provides this additional funding for the Expo Center, it will safeguard those county funds—roughly $1 million annually—that currently flow to COVA for the organization to market county-wide tourism.
"There is no written law [the county commissioners] have to give $1 million to COVA," points out Despotopulos.
But, as the logic would follow, if 9-96 is keeping the Fair & Expo Center funded and happy, there are no other real contenders to request those funds.
While this logic seems more about hope and handshakes, this small TRT increase does hold great promise to more completely explore the potential revenue that the massive venue can bring to the region—or, at least the northern reaches of the county.
The measure will bring in $350,000 annually for the Fair & Expo Center to draw in more shows and events—a ten-fold increase in its current marketing budget. It is, essentially, seed money that could spawn far-reaching funding for businesses around the Redmond area.
We hope two years from now that the schedule at the Fair & Expo Center is filled with monster trucks, ice capades, and, who knows, U2—and that the fairgrounds can finally fill out its potential as a revenue generator for the region.
Vote YES, and keep your fingers crossed.
Measure 9-95: Forms the Alfalfa Fire District and establishes a tax rate limit
The Alfalfa area of Deschutes County is 16 miles east of Bend, and is primarily an agricultural community. In the past few years, it has lost its school and post office.
For a community with few resources and sources of income, Measure 9-95 would implement a property tax to fund and form a fire district.
At $1.75 per $1,000 assessed property value in the covered areas, beginning 2014-2015, the estimated $100,000 in annual revenue would allow the district to purchase and maintain necessary property and equipment, train members, and provide emergency medical assistance and fire protection for the rural properties within the district.
Admittedly, the tax is fairly high: A resident with property assessed at $150,000 would pay approximately $262.50 yearly. But the area is in a high-risk zone—and one currently out of the coverage zone of Bend Rural Fire.
More subtle are the implication of not having a fire district and department—which include much greater difficulty obtaining building permits and fire insurance for homeowners.
Opponents of the district say a volunteer-based department would be of little help with only a part-time fire chief, and would come at a high cost for those who own high-value properties.
We say fire safety is worth it—and the importance that this plays for maintaining the community. Vote YES.
reported Amount of revenue the Deschutes County Fair and
Expo Center generates annually for the local economy
vacancy rate at Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center
for the majority of the year
increase in tax dollars area residents will pay should
measure 9-96 be approved by voters