After public forum and deliberations, City Council votes against proposed tax

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Leah Tillotson, a St. Helens resident who own the Columbia Theater, holds up a sign describing how a food combo offered at her place of business would be affected by a proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax. UPDATED: The St. Helens City Council will no longer consider implementation of an excise tax targeting sugary beverages after feedback was collected at a public forum Wednesday evening, Oct. 4.

The council voted 4-0 to reject a proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax pitched earlier this year as a revenue-generating measure for the city to help pay for improvements to city parks.

City Councilor Susan Conn was absent from the meeting. She previously submitted a letter to council president Doug Morten, however, stating her opposition to the tax.

Prior to the council's regular business meeting Wednesday night, where it was decided to end discussion and research on a proposed 1- to 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, an open public forum was held to allow residents and business owners a chance to speak.

The City Council chambers were packed with every seat taken, leaving only standing room near the chamber entrance and nearly 20 people spilling outside.

Twenty people spoke at the forum, only three of whom favored the tax. Those who did said they supported the idea of offering residents healthier drink options and liked the concept of something other than property taxes for revenue generation. One woman said the tax would be a good way to capture revenue from those who pass through St. Helens for work or those who are on their way to the coast for recreational opportunities. Two others gave neutral testimony.

Fifteen people signed up to speak in opposition to the tax, many of them business owners who said the tax would negatively affect sales. Others said the tax would drive customers to shop in Scappoose or elsewhere where there are no beverage taxes.

"Mister and miss St. Helens won't spend $6 on a bottle of pop when they can get it cheaper in Scappoose on their way through the city," said David Kirby, owner of St. Helens Market Fresh.

If the tax had been implemented and passed on to retailers, a 20-pack case of 12-ounce beverages could have increased by as much as $7.20 under the 3-cent-per-ounce rate. A single 12-ounce beverage at that rate would have cost an additional 36 cents.

Several speakers agreed city parks are in dire need of repairs and upgrades, as pointed out by St. Helens Finance Director Matt Brown, but said other possibilities should be explored to generate money.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - The St. Helens City Council chambers were packed Wednesday night, Oct. 4, during a public forum to discuss a proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Mayor Rick Scholl was notably absent from the forum, but could be seen sitting in a staff hallway outside of the council chambers. In September, he publicly stated his opposition to the forum and intent to protest because of the amount of negative feedback he had already received from the community. Scholl was present for the City Council meeting immediately following the forum.

Scholl said following the meeting that his intent in protesting the forum was not because he was against or in favor of the tax, but because he believed it should have been something that was pitched to voters to begin with, not something for the City Council to decide on its own.

"I believe it should be up to the voters," Scholl said.

Councilor Ginny Carlson held a similar opinion and expressed her thoughts during deliberations at the City Council meeting. Although she said she personally thinks excess sugar consumption is "awful," she doesn't think it's the council's right to determine what's in people's refrigerators.

"It's not up to five people [on the council] to decide what 14,000 people will pay," Carlson said.

The tax was first proposed in March as a way to generate revenue for the city, a task some budget committee members encouraged the council to do for at least the past two budget cycles.

Brown presented research on the topic at several City Council meetings and garnered support from public health entities like the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, who supported the tax as a way to promote healthy choices. In several discussions, Brown also pitched the tax as an opportunity for the city to generate money that could be used to improve city parks and sidewalks, which in their own right would also promote a healthy lifestyle.

In the months leading up to the forum, Doug Stokes, owner of the St. Helens Liquor Store and Josh Poling, a manager at St. Helens Market Fresh, submitted a petition opposing the tax and proposing a referendum to prohibit the council from considering future taxes of the sort.

At the end of Wednesday's meeting, Brown said a cursory glance at a series of informal surveys passed out to audience members at the forum indicated residents were in favor of closing small or underutilized parks as a money-saving measure. The topic is expected to be discussed further at a

City Council meeting in November.