The Dalles The Dalles City Council is moving ahead with formation of an Economic Improvement District that will be funded by taxing downtown properties.
The $250 assessment on about 200 tax lots over a three-year period will be used to pay the wages of an executive director for The Dalles Main Street Program, a nonprofit organization. That individual will market the area and plan promotional activities to draw community members and visitors.
With Monday’s decision, city staffers will now send out notices to let affected property owners know that a hearing on the assessment will be held April 22. Written objections submitted by April 12 from the owners of properties comprising 33 percent of the assessed value for the district can stop its enactment.
The council decided after hearing almost two hours of testimony that no more than three tax lots under a single ownership should be taxed. Councilor Bill Dick amended the original plan to impose the $250 fee on each lot to alleviate financial hardship on struggling businesses. He also gained agreement that Fourth Street property holders should only be assessed for one lot, no matter how many they owned.
His reasoning was that the 40 vacant store fronts were primarily on Second and Third streets, which would benefit most from marketing efforts.
“As a downtown property owner, I’m willing to pay,” he said. “If this is established, I think it would be a way to compete against the ‘big box’ stores.”
He was joined in that assertion by Councilors Carolyn Wood, who also owns property downtown, Dan Spatz and Tim McGlothlin.
Gene Parker, city attorney, had determined that it was not a conflict of interest for Dick and Wood to weigh in on the issue. He said any gain from their decision would affect a broad swath of business owners and not them as individuals.
“Because we’ve come this far, we need to let the process continue and the people say, ‘Yea,’ or ‘Nay,’” said Wood.
She was referencing several prior hearings held on the issue and amendment of the original plan to tax properties at 5 cents per square foot for a period of five years.
Councilor Linda Miller was reluctant to give approval to the imposition of a new tax, although she voted in favor of having the issue decided in April. She said more effort needed to be focused on sprucing up the downtown blocks and finishing planned street improvements so the area was more appealing to visitors.
“The downtown has a dirty look to it now and our kids are calling it “Dirty Dalles,’” she said. “It needs to be cleaned up and maybe that can help.”
McGlothlin had objected to amending the terms of the plan – the proposal to impose a $250 annual fee on every tax lot — without first sending it back for review by the steering committee for the Main Street Program. He said the idea had been pitched by representatives from the nonprofit group and they needed to decide if receiving less than the expected $49,000 per year in revenue was still workable.
“We’re imposing a change and I feel it should go back to the committee,” he said.
Dick replied that the council was responsible for the final decision after hearing from all parties on the issue.
“I think our job is to shepherd and this would be shepherding,” he said.
The city has budgeted $30,000 to cover some of the salary costs for the director in the current fiscal year if the district is approved. That amount goes down to $20,000 in 2013-14 and then to $10,00 in 2014-15 before phasing out on the assumption that Main Street will have been able to replace the money through grants and fundraising.
The city has also offered to administer the district without charge and provide office space and equipment.
The western boundary of the district is proposed to start on Second and Pentland streets and run east to the far edge of the roundabout. The northern order would be First Street and extend south from Fourth to Court, then around the courthouse on Fifth and down to Third Street at Jefferson and back to the roundabout.
Slightly more than half of the 11 people who testified at Monday’s public hearing on the issue spoke in favor of the proposal. However, 44 letters in opposition that represented about 75 of the affected tax lots were submitted by Charles Langley, a Fourth Street bed and breakfast owner.
One of those property owners, Ron Vergeer, later rescinded his letter and stated his intent to further research the matter.
“People will do things because they see an opportunity not because we hire someone from out of town to come market for us,” said Langley.
He said the added tax to revitalize downtown was not the answer to the town’s economic problems. He said the shift to site businesses on the west end of the city had begun in the 1970s with the development of Cascade Square and taking money away from businesses to create another “layer of bureaucracy” was the solution.
“These ‘big box’ stores and online shopping are the problem; trying to compete against the internet is pretty difficult,” he said.
Langley suggested that city officials open Second and Third streets to two-way traffic to bring more people into the downtown corridor.
He was joined by other dissenters in saying that the city and Main Street Program should focus on providing practical assistance to businesses and not “creating another layer of bureaucracy” paid for by more taxes.
Opponents to the plan said that marketing needed to be left to The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce and other existing agencies. They said a series of similar promotional ideas for the downtown corridor had taken place during the past 30 years and none of them had delivered the promised results.
“I think if you are going to raise the money, you need to make it more fair,” said Bev Eagy, owner of ANZAC Tea Parlor on Fourth Street. “I think the whole town would benefit from the downtown being revitalized.
David Griffith, owner of Griffith Motors and several downtown properties where his Honda and Toyota dealerships were once located, said he supported formation of the district. He has sold four of his eight tax lots in the affected area but still has four so will pay $750 per year in assessments.
“Do I want to pay for it? Not really, but I know I need to make that commitment to our community,” he said. “If we don’t do something about our community today, we’re just dead men walking. think it’s our time to shine and I hope we do it.”
His comments were representative of six others that were also registered at the March 11 hearing by proponents of the taxing plan.