Resolution would waive excise tax for fire victims


LINCOLN COUNTY — During its regular meeting Tuesday, the Lincoln County School District Board of Directors discussed a draft resolution that could save thousands of dollars in upfront costs for people looking to rebuild homes destroyed by the Echo Mountain Complex fire.

The district has been under community pressure since mid October to forbear its $1.24 per square foot tax on new and replacement construction for those who lost homes in September wildfires, after contractors aiding fire victims in Otis appealed for a waiver during the board’s Oct. 13 meeting. At the time, board members and district administration concluded that they had no legal pathway to grant such an exception, an interpretation that was subsequently supported by the Oregon Office of the Legislative Counsel.

State Rep. David Gomberg has applied to bring new legislation that would change the law to explicitly allow waivers for victims of a declared disaster, which would apply retroactively, but such relief could be months away if the proposed measure isn’t considered until the next regular session of the legislature. And the revelation that other fire-impacted districts have allowed exemptions has prompted sustained pressure on the Lincoln County School District, which until this week maintained that it would gladly offer the relief if its hands were not tied by the 2007 statute that created the tax.

Near the end of the school board’s Nov. 10 meeting, Superintendent Karen Gray told board members she’d sought support from the governor’s office for districts that wanted to grant a waiver and had spoken with the superintendent of the North Santiam School District, whose board did approve one. She’d also consulted with legal counsel from the Oregon School Boards Association, whose take on the law’s application seemed to differ from the legislative counsel’s.

Gray said an email from Spencer Lewis, director of policy services for the association, was somewhat confusing and “lawyerly,” providing reasons both pro and con. The law, according to the email, neither forbids nor allows the practice. “Eventually, the answer is, you just have to weigh it out and make a decision,” Gray said.

To that end, Gray presented a draft resolution adapted from the one passed by the North Santiam board, which would grant a temporary waiver under the following conditions: the home to be replaced was damaged in September 2020 by the Echo Mountain Complex fire; the person requesting the waiver owned and resided in the home at the time of the fire; the home must be a primary residence “and not a rental or vacation rental home;” the home cannot be of significantly greater square footage than the one it replaces; and the waiver must be requested prior to March 1, 2021.

“I feel that this is the right thing to do for the community. It’s not just the pressure of everybody telling me that it’s the right thing. It is the right thing,” Gray said. “If there was a legal fight to this, I think we could win that fight because the law doesn’t say you can’t. It also doesn’t say you can, and when the law is silent, you get to do things until the law is not silent.”

She said she thought the move “would be a bit a of a risk … but sometimes risks are worth taking.”

Unable to take action on the resolution Tuesday, as it was on the agenda as a discussion item, the board discussed potential revisions and the mechanics of granting the waiver. Chair Megan Cawley suggested moving the sunset date from March to the end of the district’s fiscal year, June 31, 2021. Board member Ron Beck, who worked with Gray in drafting the resolution, said he envisioned the application for each waiver would go directly to the board, which could then provide some kind of voucher to present to the Lincoln County Planning Department. Through an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2008, the county collects the excise tax during the building permitting process.

Board members authorized district staff to revise the resolution for the Dec. 8 meeting, at which time they could vote to adopt it.

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