Oak Harbor council abandons B&O tax idea

The Oak Harbor City Council ditched plans to adopt a business and occupation tax.

Following a thorough discussion, members of the Oak Harbor City Council ditched plans to adopt a business and occupation tax that would have funded additional Oak Harbor police staff and other city services.

The police department had requested four more officers so that another person would be patrolling the streets all hours of the day, one for each of the four shifts. In addition, the department requested a drug detective and a part-time receptionist.

The suggested B&O tax would only affect businesses grossing over $1 million a year; the rate would be 0.002. The tax would generate about $1.3 million a year.

An officer costs the city about $113,000 a year, including benefits.

The proposal failed at a recent council meeting, however, when a motion failed to get a second and the council moved on.

Deputy City Administrator David Goldman said the tax would also help fund indigent defense expenses, marina dredging, city facilities, technological enhancements, cyber security personnel, a parks administrative assistant, a grant accountant, economic development program elements, low-income resident assistance, internship programs for students and unplanned infrastructure repairs.

Other revenue options have limits, Goldman said, but a B&O tax is fully available. A total of 50 other Washington cities use it.

“As a business owner myself, I understand the importance of a balanced budget,” Mayor Ronnie Wright said at a council meeting. “As a vibrant community, we have several programs and initiatives the community is requesting, and we have to identify the ways to fund these going forward.”

According to Police Chief Tony Slowik, businesses that make the most, such as Walmart, Haggen and Safeway, do require more time and visits than small, local businesses.

The heart of this need comes from the desire to free officers up for more proactive police work, Slowik said. That means patrolling parks, riding bicycles and increasing community engagement. Compared to surrounding cities, Oak Harbor has fewer police per capita: 1.17 compared to 1.64 in Anacortes and 3.05 in Burlington.

Some council members, while showing reluctant support, pondered the need. Councilmember Bryan Stucky said the city continually ranks among the state’s safest cities.

Slowik questions how those surveys get their data, as they are not coming from the police department. They are likely coming from the FBI, which isn’t the most accurate for local needs.

At a recent workshop, Councilmember Jim Woessner asked, “Do any of us really feel unsafe?”

“We do have a safe community,” Slowik said in an interview. “We’re proud of that. I think we work hard for that. I think that’s not just because of the police department.”

The need for increased staffing has to do with the types of calls, which require multiple officers and more time. A couple weeks ago, four people overdosed simultaneously in front of the 7-Eleven, he said.

“What I don’t want is this to be a conversation two years from now where they’re like, ‘Man, I wish we would have got a couple more officers because in the future, we’re not feeling as safe,’” he said.

Another option is to set the tax to affect the 27 Oak Harbor businesses that gross over $5 million. The consumer would likely not be affected by this option, said Councilmember Bryan Stucky.

Dannah McCullough, Chamber of Commerce executive director, recognizes the benefit of these kinds of taxes to the community at large. That said, she wrote in an email that she would prefer the burden not be placed on the shoulders of businesses and hopes council instead considers the alternative options.

“I don’t like it,” Councilmember Shane Hoffmire said. “I don’t like increasing a tax to handle our basic obligations to our citizenry. However, very few things that I vote for have the opportunity to save someone’s life, and we do desperately need more officers.”

Councilmember Eric Marshall said businesses could choose to move to surrounding areas.

“The issue I have is putting public safety on the backs of so many businesses,” he said. “We’ve talked a number of times about affordable housing, how are we going to make housing affordable. If we make it more expensive to do business here, how are we going to do business here?”