CANNON BEACH — For years, the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District has looked at ways to get tourists to pay their share for emergency services.
Now city leaders say they may go to voters in November with a tax on food and beverages as a way to target spending by tourists and direct that money back to the fire district. Increasingly, emergency calls from visitors make up the bulk of the fire district’s call load while residents continue to foot the bill.
Fire Chief Marc Reckmann floated the idea of a 2% food and beverage tax for the next three years, with most of the revenue going to pay for fire district personnel. The district has only three paid employees. Another position, a staff member tasked with volunteer recruitment and retention who also serves as a firefighter herself, is funded through a grant set to run out in December 2022.
The fire district relies on volunteer firefighters who, because of work or other issues, may not always be available when a call comes in. The district lacks daily staffing, as well as a dedicated fire marshal, someone who is able to review development plans and consistently provide fire inspections for hotels and other businesses that need this documentation for insurance purposes.
Funded primarily through property tax revenue, the fire district was not interested in pursuing another bond measure that would only continue to draw money from locals, while the city says it is not able to take on the cost and logistics of running its own fire department.
But there is a disconnect between what people assume the fire district can provide and what it can consistently offer, Reckmann said.
“I believe it is the expectation of visitors that we have a surf and a rope team,” he told city councilors. “When they come and they hike the trails and they’re in the water, I don’t think anyone gives it a second thought: Do we have those services if they get in trouble? Or, who is going to come pull them out of the water?”
Meanwhile, the city, local businesses and residents have their own expectations.
Going forward, if the fire district is not able to boost revenue streams and fund personnel, “the only other thing we can start doing is looking at services we provide,” said Garry Smith, the president of the fire district board.
“All that we’re really required legally to supply is structural firefighting,” he reminded the City Council at a recent work session. “We don’t have to do wildland firefighting. We don’t have to do (emergency medical care). We don’t have to do surf rescue.”
The fire district doesn’t want to give up providing these services, Reckmann said, but there could be difficult choices ahead.
Last year, the district responded to 466 calls for service, an increase over prior years. Of those, 77% — 344 calls — came from nonresidents.
The fire district saw a dip in calls when Cannon Beach largely shut down to tourism in the spring and summer as coronavirus cases spiked across Oregon. Call levels shot up in September when visitors returned and remained high through the end of the year. Already this year, for January and February, the number of calls is higher than what the district saw in prior years.
When Reckmann recently reached out to businesses through the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, he was told by some not to put the question of a food and beverage tax on the ballot. But city leaders believe it is the best way to facilitate a fully public and transparent process.
City and fire district leaders have some work to do before anything goes forward, however. It isn’t clear how much money the tax would raise or exactly how revenue generated should be split between the district and the city.
Still, Mayor Sam Steidel believes visitors need to help pay their part. Besides, he said, many are already visiting from areas that have a sales tax. He expects a small tax like the one proposed would barely register.
To him, it is a no-brainer how people should vote on such a proposal.
“I think it’s the residents that are the ones footing the bill for all the tourists who want to go swimming in the ocean when it’s only like 4 degrees out there,” he said.