County court throws its muscle behind marijuana tax proposal

Ontario mayor-elect Riley Hill speaks before the Malheur County Court Wednesday. Hill asked the court to support his plan to boost the tax rate on retail marijuana sales in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – The city of Ontario would spend more money on roads, homeless and veteran housing and hire two new police detectives under a plan by Mayor-elect Riley Hill.

Hill is proposing a six-fold increase in the voter-approved city sales tax on retail marijuana sales and Wednesday the Malheur County Court agreed to support the plan. Recreational marijuana sales are expected to get underway in Ontario later this year.

Hill still needs the Oregon Legislature to change the law but support from the county court could be key.

Hill’s plan would boost the city’s tax on recreational marijuana sales from three to 18 percent. Added to the state’s sales tax, Hill’s plan would mean marijuana merchants will pay a 35 percent tax on marijuana sales – still less than the 37 percent that Washington retailers pay. The state now collects a 17 percent tax on all recreational marijuana sales.

Hill said most of the money from the tax hike would be used to pay down the city’s Public Employee Retirement System debt.

Hill said the move is about safeguarding Ontario.

“Why shouldn’t the city benefit from it? We will have increased traffic because of it. The state collects a huge fee and they don’t feel any impact from it and we get very little,” said Hill.

County Judge Dan Joyce said he supported the idea because he does not believe the 3 percent tax would cover the city’s costs.

“I think Riley was doing the right thing for the community,” Joyce said.

Commissioner Don Hodge liked the proposal because it would provide money to address the county’s homeless challenge.

“We need more help in that,” said Hodge.

The action by the court is just the first of a series of steps for the plan, Hill said. Hill said he needs to work fast to craft legislation as the deadline to introduce it at the 2018 Legislature is Friday, Jan. 18.

Hill said he has already talked with the county’s two legislators – state Rep. Lynn Findley, R- Vale and state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario – about his concept.

Findley said he had not seen the resolution yet. If elected leaders in all of the cities in Malheur County agree to support the effort, Findley said he would do what he can to push a bill through the legislature.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.