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St. Helens finance director proposes tax to council, but questions halt adoption for further review

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - In a proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax for drinks like soda, distributors would incur a fee based on ounce size of the drink. The idea behind the tax is to promote healthy choices while generating income to create outreach programs in the community and improve parks. The St. Helens City Council is still mulling the possibility of implementing an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in an effort to encourage healthy habits, while also generating revenue that could be used to improve facilities in city parks.

City Finance Director Matt Brown has been working over the past few months with community partners like The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County to garner support for a proposed 1- to 3-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks, such as soda.

During a City Council work session Wednesday, July 19, Brown approached the council with three letters of support for the tax. The letters were from the health foundation, the Oregon State University Extension Office and a private citizen.

Cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Berkeley, California, have implemented similar taxes.

If a 2-cent per ounce excise tax was implemented, the city could see revenues between $190,000 and $300,000 a year, Brown calculated.

As an excise tax, sugary drink wholesale distributors would be responsible for paying the cost. It would be the distributors' decision whether or not to pass it on to the consumer, Brown earlier noted.

Revenue collected from the tax would be likely be split between the public health foundation and the city, with the city receiving the lion's share of 80 percent, which could be used to improve public spaces.

While the city has a parks master plan that outlines lofty goals for park improvements, none of those projects currently have a funding source, Brown said Wednesday. The incoming revenue from the tax could be used to improve city parks in a significant way, he explained.

After discussion, city councilors still had numerous questions for Brown, suggesting that the council was not ready to adopt the tax at this point. Councilors Ginny Carlson and Susan Conn asked Brown for clarification about how successful other cities have been with such a tax, and how those revenues generated healthy change for children in those communities.

Mayor Rick Scholl and council chair Doug Morten suggested the council hold a public forum to gather feedback before making a final decision.

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