Public forum planned in October to gain public feedback on sugar-sweetened beverage tax

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens city staff are proposing a sugar-sweetened beverage tax to the St. Helens City Council. While no draft ordinance has been completed yet, a public forum will be held in October to gauge public interest.If the St. Helens City Council approves a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, it's possible only large distributors and retail shops would have to implement the tax, according to one plan developed by city staff.

Matt Brown, the city's finance director, said he will likely ask the City Council to consider implementing the tax only at retailers that meet an annual gross revenue threshold, and also exempt self-distributors from the proposed excise tax.

Brown first introduced implementation of a local 1- to 2-cent per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, as a revenue-generating idea for the city in March. An excise tax is paid by the distributor and the cost is often reflected in the price a retailer pays and then passes on to customers.

The city has not taken any formal action to implement the tax, but Brown has been researching how it could be structured.

Brown recently said he will present the City Council with the option of implementing the tax at retail shops that exceed set annual revenue in an effort to avoid hurting small businesses. Another option, Brown said, is also to not implement the tax on businesses that are self-distributors.

Public backlash against the proposed tax has been prevalent on social media and amongst some business owners who strongly oppose it.

Josh Poling, store director at St. Helens Market Fresh, said if the tax is implemented it would severely impact small businesses and drive customers to other places to purchase goods. Poling is against the tax and has been trying to motivate the public via social media to bring their concerns to the City Council.

If someone doesn't want to pay an additional cost on a six-pack of sodas, that customer is likely to drive to nearby cities where a tax does not exist, Poling explained, adding that customers will likely buy more than just soda or sweet drinks, a prospect bad for St. Helens businesses.

Local businesses have rallied the attention of major players like the Oregon Soft Drink Association, a local chapter of the American Beverage Association, which issued a statement in opposition in July.

The tax has received support from the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County and the St. Helens Youth Council. Two members of the St. Helens Parks Commission also support the tax, with one opposed and three members abstaining.

Brown said the idea behind implementing a sugar-sweetened beverage tax is twofold — promote healthier drink choices and generate revenue for the city's parks and recreation budget.

A 2015 Parks and Recreation Master Plan for the city outlines $4 million of desired capital improvement projects in the city's parks, but does not specify a revenue source to fund those projects, Brown said. Revenue collected from sugar-sweetened beverages would be set aside in a separate fund that would help pay parks upgrades and sidewalks improvements, which in turn promotes healthier lifestyle choices, Brown added. The proposed tax could generate between $175,000 and $200,000 annually, Brown estimated, making some of those projects attainable.

Brown said he has explored ways to lessen the fiscal impacts on smaller businesses if the tax is approved by the City Council.

While the effort might be enough to satisfy some small shop owners, Poling said he's not in favor of taxing businesses unequally. Grocery items should not be the subject of a regressive tax, he said.

"Any tax you put on groceries, period, in my opinion, is not a good idea," Poling said. "It affects anybody and their budget."

The St. Helens City Council has a public forum scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers, where audience members willl be able to testify in favor or opposition of the tax.

During a City Council work session, Mayor Rick Scholl stated his opposition to the tax and suggested canceling the forum. "This thing has gone far enough," he said.

Scholl said he would consider protesting the public forum by not attending in light of the negative comments he has already heard.

City Council members Ginny Carlson, Susan Conn and Doug Morten said they respected the governmental process and are open to hosting the forum in October to get feedback from the public.

After the forum, the City Council would decide whether or not to direct Brown to draft an ordinance which would be brought back to the council for a vote of approval.

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