St. Helens staff make the rounds to gauge community support for a tax on sugary drinks, and gain backing from county's public health agency

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens City Finance Director Matt Brown and Tobacco Prevention and Education Coordinator for The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County Ashley Baggett talk with the St. Helens School District school board members on Wednesday, June 28. Brown and Baggett presented a possible sugary beverage tax and asked for a signed letter of support that Brown could take to the St. Helens City Council.
St. Helens city staff are reaching out to community stakeholders to discuss a considered sugary beverage excise tax that would generate city funds and promote healthier choices.

St. Helens Finance Director Matt Brown met with the St. Helens School District board of directors and the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County earlier this month to talk about the possibility of implementing the tax in St. Helens and what benefits it would bring to the community.

In March, Brown first brought the idea to the St. Helens City Council to gauge its interest in pursuing what some cities have called a "soda-tax." At least four major cities nationwide have a tax in place, and Seattle and San Francisco will implement taxes next year. St. Helens is considering a tax on sugary drinks like soda, to encourage healthy consumer choices and create extra revenue.

The purpose of the tax would be twofold — to generate a small amount of revenue for the city and its community partners and to encourage and educate residents about healthy choices.

While the City Council has not adopted policies that would support such a tax, Brown said he took it upon himself to dig into the topic and start approaching community groups and agencies to talk in-depth about the tax and a possible educational outreach project.

On Tuesday, June 27, Brown spoke with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County about the tax. The following night, Brown was joined by Ashley Baggett, tobacco prevention and education coordinator for The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, and raised the subject with the St. Helens School District board.

"We're not making soda illegal, but want to at least make people aware that there are healthier options out there," Brown said.

The tax itself would be an excise tax, Brown explained, meaning the 1 to 3 cent-per-ounce tax would be placed on the distributor directly. Beverages sweetened with sugar or produced with added caloric sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup, would be subject to the tax. The expense could be passed on to the consumer who purchases soda drinks at a store in city limits, but not necessarily.

Brown explained that many distributors often absorb the tax and don't always add the cost on to beverages subject to it, so some customers may not see a price difference at all. That's where the education and public outreach component would come in, Brown and Baggett explained.

"Things like this, that are very cutting edge for communities, are a very big way to start to curb the obesity epidemic," Baggett told the school board Wednesday. "The school district has already done a great job with a number of different things, whether that's including healthier options in the vending machines, having water bottle filling stations ... and also increasing nutrition standards, so the district has already done some really wonderful things."

Brown said his intent was to get buy-in from stakeholders like public health and the school district before making a formal proposal to the City Council. While the sugary beverage tax is still just an idea, Brown said he wanted everyone to be engaged and supportive of it if he were to purse it further with the council.

"In essence, the tax would be split among the three of us to help achieve the greater goal of a healthier community," Brown stated in an email to the Spotlight. "The [percentage] split of potential revenue is to be determined, but before we even get to that conversation, we have to have support and buy-in from the stakeholders that we feel are needed to make it successful."

If a 2-cent tax were implemented, Brown estimated the city could generate $140,000 per year. The city would likely be able to use some of that revenue to improve city parks and sidewalks, he told the school board.

"This is not a tax to count on for operations. It's a tax that we'd expect to go down over time, because that means it's working," Brown said.

Brown said he hoped to get letters of support before

the mid-July City Council meeting.

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