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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00

Haywood room tax hike deep-sixed

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Even though an “overwhelming majority” of community leaders in Haywood County support a lodging tax increase, a state bill that would have done just that died in the state legislature last week.

 

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, initially introduced the bill at the behest of county leaders, but his support quickly waned after a faction of motel owners in Maggie Valley and an anti-tax contingency mounted opposition. As the Senator representing Haywood, the bill could not advance without Davis’ backing.

The bill would have allowed the county to raise its lodging tax from 4 cents to 6 cents. Money generated by the overnight room tax is pumped back in to tourism marketing and initiatives. The increase would have brought in an extra $450,000 and gone to projects aimed at bringing more tourists and their wallets to Haywood County. 

A bill must pass either the state Senate or House by May 16 — known as “the crossover deadline” — to stay alive. Davis parked the bill in neutral, however, and did not attempt to advance it, so it languished and died.

County and tourism leaders publicly broached the idea of upping the lodging tax in February and moved quickly to draft a bill and get it introduced in March. 

There was one thing missing, according to Davis — a clear majority opinion. Davis had no scientific method for figuring out what constituted a majority, such as a survey, vote or poll. But Davis said in the past he would know a consensus when he saw it.

However, last week Davis offered a new reason for not carrying the torch. As a whole, the bill appeared to have majority support, Davis concluded.

 “An overwhelming majority of people … were all in support of this,” Davis said.

All except in Maggie Valley, however, and on that basis Davis let the bill die. Some Maggie motel owners mounted vocal opposition to the bill, although other Maggie motel owners supported it. Both sides claimed the majority were on their side, but there was enough opposition in Davis’ view to warrant killing the bill.

In addition, the Maggie town board was split 2-to-2 over the matter. Aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews voted to oppose the bill.

When a vocal group of Maggie lodging owners and residents objecting to the bill met with Davis at the Haywood County Republican Headquarters, a few attacked him for even introducing the bill.

However, Davis said he was simply doing his job as a representative and assured attendees that the bill wouldn’t go anywhere until there was consensus. 

Other than the two Maggie aldermen, no other public officials disapproved of the lodging tax bill. The TDA executive board, the county commissioners, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce and all the other town boards voted in favor of it.

Davis tasked the town and county leaders to get the Maggie hold-outs on board in order to see the bill advanced.

That would mean concessions favoring Maggie — such as more control over the money raised by the tax and guarantees that a portion was spent in Maggie — that the rest of the county wasn’t willing to make, however. 

Wight and Matthews, the two Maggie aldermen against the tax, aren’t against it due to general anti-tax sentiments.

“In all my comments, I always said, ‘As presented, I did not agree with the bill,’” Wight said.

Their issues was how the money would be allocated geographically in the county, for what projects, and who would decide that.

However, tourism leaders said that getting permission from the state to raise the lodging tax via the bill was step one. Once the bill passed, then county officials and tourism leaders would sit down to work out all the minutiae.

Because if the bill did not pass, time would have been wasted figuring out how to appropriate extra money that was never to come in, according to tourism officials.

 

On the back burner

The matter is not completely dead. Tourism leaders will just have to wait until 2015 before trying again.

“That gives them an opportunity to get everybody on board,” Davis said.

It is not clear if they will, however. The TDA board will have to decide where to go from here.

“We have not discussed it at this point,” said TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins. “We will just have to see what happens in the future.”

Money brought in by the room tax increase would have been earmarked solely for tourism-related capital projects. Tournament-caliber sports complexes, civic center venues and grants to help private tourist attractions have been cited as examples of projects the money could go toward.

Without the 2-cent tax increase, the county doesn’t have a pot of money to fund things

“They are probably going to miss out,” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone, who supported the bill.

The vagueness of the term “tourism-related capital project” worried some lodging owners. Critics wanted more clarity on what money could pay for.

The funds could be spent on anything that helps attract more tourists, according to tourism leaders. It just all depends on how creative people are in their funding proposals.

Alice Aumen, chairwoman of the TDA board, said some could not see past the ball fields and sports complex to the greater possibilities for the tax revenue, which made them leery of it.

“It’s a vision problem,” Aumen said.

Meanwhile, other counties, including Swain and Buncombe, already have a portion of their lodging tax set aside for tourism-related capital projects.

Swain County increased its lodging tax from 3 cents to 4 cents. Money from the additional cent helped create a whitewater paddling freestyle wave on the Nantahala River, restoration of the historic courthouse into a heritage museum and could help pay for the restoration of a steam engine to run along the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad line.

Aumen feared that without money to pay for attractions that could draw in more tourists, Haywood County will be left behind compared to destinations like Asheville or Cherokee.

“We’ve got all these 800-pound gorillas on all sides of us,” she said.

Aumen wants to continue pushing for the tax increase.

“We are certainly going to persevere with this because it is the only chance that Haywood County has to be competitive,” she said.

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