Business fee delayed as debate continues

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

September 16, 2006

The Hood River City Council was asked on Tuesday to conduct a public survey before giving final approval to a business license.

“I think there should be a poll of businesses so they can see your arguments and weigh these against their own needs,” said Darrell Lloyd, a self-employed photographer.

The Hood River County Chamber of Commerce recently surveyed its business membership and found that almost 60 percent of respondents were opposed to the license. Lloyd said those results were likely to be repeated in a city-wide poll.

Brian Robb, also a photographer, warned officials that a citizen referendum would be launched to overturn the license if adopted.

“I think it’s unnecessary and the concerns it’s meant to address are covered by existing law,” he said.

Prior to taking public comment, the council decided to hold off on a second reading of Ordinance 1901. They will put the new code back on the agenda for Sept. 25 with two modifications.

In response to citizen concern that the license was intended as a “revenue-generator,” the elected body decided to cap the $50 initial fee and annual $20 renewal. That would require a public hearing to amend the ordinance and raise the fees.

The council is also adding a sunset clause to 1901 that necessitates it be revisited in three years. At that time, officials could determine if a central database created by the license was effectively addressing public health and safety concerns, or helping more businesses get established and/or in compliance with existing regulations, such as the sign code.

In a previous redraft of 1901, the council lifted a controversial requirement for a mandatory annual site inspection.

Bob Francis, city manager, said the council had made a business license one of its goals two years ago. And staff had been “tweaking” the idea ever since, to ensure it was in the best interests of the community.

“Staff will continue to write this ordinance until it’s something everybody can abide by,” said Francis.

He said information on businesses could be gleaned from multiple regulatory agencies. But it would be much easier to access data through a central database. He said the license would also allow the city to “cross check” potential hazards, such as a large volume of toxins that were being stored by someone unaware of state standards.

Councilors Paul Cummings, Carrie Nelson and Martin Compos-Davis favored the license because it would provide an avenue to more closely monitor home-based businesses. Mayor Linda Streich joined them in the belief that it would also provide emergency responders with easier access to contact numbers if a fire or crime occurred on the property.

Councilors Laurent Picard, Ann Frodel and Paul Blackburn opposed 1901. They contend that, if 75 percent of Oregon’s cities do not require a license, there must be an alternative way to create a data base that could also be used for marketing purposes.

Arthur Babitz, an engineer who is vying for one of three open council seats, said he believed officials could not legally give a second reading to the ordinance because of “substantive” changes. He said, in addition to the cap and sunset clause, the council was also adding a definition of a home occupation that would be exempt from the license fee.

He felt the ordinance needed to go back through the public hearing process to gain citizen input on the changes.

Babitz also questioned at the Sept. 23 meeting how 1901 would better protect public safety without an enforcement arm. Although applicants would be asked to list any hazardous materials on a form, he said there would be no way to verify that information.

Nor did Babitz see how the expected $30,000 of annual revenue was going to cover the cost of staff time to create and maintain a data base.

He said, “I hate to be the person who’s coming up with all the little picky details, but …”

Pat McAllister, general manager of Hood River Supply, favored the license for “peace of mind.” He said his company paid $2,000-$4,000 annually to register hazardous materials with the state fire marshal. But many competitors “flew below the radar” to avoid those costs.

Andrew McElderry, owner of Andrew’s Pizza and Bakery, said he felt the license would make the price of doing business in Hood River more equitable. He said larger establishments paid more taxes and fees — and were held to stricter standards.

“I don’t know why a home business should be treated any different than anyone setting up a storefront,” he said.

However, McElderry believed the city should not act on the license without a large show of support from the business community.

“I am for a business license, I’m just not sure I’m for this business license as it stands now,” he said. “This should be a partnership between businesses and the city. What’s good for business is good for the city and what’s good for the city is good for business.”

Brian Watts, a building contractor, said the solution to the issue seemed simple: Make registration for a data base voluntary.

Robb said if the council proceeds with the second reading of 1901 on Sept. 25, he will immediately start gathering signatures to put a referendum on a future ballot. He needs 10 percent of the city’s registered voters to endorse the idea, and he anticipates that will be no problem given the continuing controversy over the license and fee.

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