Maggie’s new official stance in favor of the room tax hike is symbolic. Until now, the Maggie town board was split on the issue. But two newly elected aldermen have tipped the scales in favor of the increase.
A vote this month came out 4-to-1, reversing the previous vote on record of 2-to-2.
Every other town in the county — Waynesville, Canton, Clyde — plus the county commissioners had unanimously endorsed the room tax already, over a year ago, in fact.
Maggie’s support was seen as a missing piece of the puzzle needed for the room tax hike to win the blessing of the General Assembly, where its passage has been hung up for the past year.
“Local people are electing local leaders, and if those local leaders are trying to accomplish something locally, why should the state second guess that?” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone.
But the new majority support from Maggie may not be the linchpin the county’s tourism leaders were hoping for. To take effect, it must be passed in both the N.C. Senate and N.C. House of Representatives.
On the Senate side, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is back on board, despite temporarily withdrawing his support last year amidst the wrangling in Maggie.
On the House side, however, N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, still has misgivings and isn’t willing to green light the room tax hike.
“This is a very controversial bill. That is a fact,” Presnell said. “It is still controversial.”
Presnell said the General Assembly won’t take up controversial local bills during the abbreviated legislative session this spring, the so-called “short session” that occurs in even-numbered years.
Presnell said she doesn’t know what or who decides whether a local bill is controversial, thus making it a non-starter during the short session. Presnell presumably plays a large role herself, however, in setting the tone for the bill, since she is Haywood’s representative in the N.C. House.
DeSimone said sentiment is clear and overwhelming from his perspective. Maggie voters had a choice in the election last fall, with candidates on both sides of the room tax issue on the ballot.
“The three candidates that got elected ran on the fact that they supported the occupancy tax. They were vocal about that,” DeSimone said.
Maggie Alderman Philip Wight, who opposes the room tax increase, said he isn’t exactly the lone voice he’s made out to be. He pointed to a resolution by the Haywood County GOP opposing the room tax increase, which was passed at the party’s annual convention last weekend.
“The Republican Party Platform supports free enterprise, less government regulation, lower taxation, and reduced government spending — all of which are contrary to a 50 percent increase in taxes on area lodging businesses and patrons,” the resolution states.
But Commissioner Mike Sorrells, a Democrat, said the resolution does not necessarily reflect the mainstream views of local Republicans.
“I wonder if it’s truly a Republican Party resolution,” said Sorrells.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley also suggested a small faction of the party was behind the resolution, rather than the party as a whole.
“They’ve kind of taken over the GOP,” said Ensley, who is a Republican himself.
Ensley doesn’t have a problem with a small tax paid by overnight tourists, given the costs incurred by the county when visitors require emergency services, citing motorcycle accidents and skiing injuries.
In the name of economic development?
A year ago, Haywood tourism leaders called for a tax increase on overnight lodging from 4 to 6 percent, which would bring in an additional $500,000 annually.
It would be earmarked to build new tourism attractions and venues, or upgrade and expand existing ones. Examples run the gamut from a civic center to a tournament-caliber sports complex to grants for commercial attractions or nonprofit museums.
It was endorsed almost instantly by town boards and county commissioners after the county tourism board floated the idea. But pushback soon materialized from a contingent of motel and rental unit owners in Maggie.
Critics questioned whether the county’s tourism budget is being wisely spent as it is. The existing 4 percent room tax already brings in nearly $1 million, which funds tourism marketing, initiatives and events — all in the name of attracting more tourists.
“One of the things I asked was what are you doing with almost the $1 million in occupancy tax you are getting now?” Presnell said. “I needed more information.”
Wight, the lone elected official in the county who is against the room tax hike, said he has several reasons for opposing it. He fears any tourism attractions built with the money could end up being a drain on local taxpayers down the road.
Further, Maggie should be in control of its own room tax dollars — instead of putting them in a countywide kitty to be parceled back out, he said.
“If we are supposed to give our money away at the county level and then turn around and beg for projects, at some point, it will pit municipalities against each other,” Wight said.
Maggie will be outnumbered, and will see the room tax dollars collected from its motels snatched up for tourism attractions to be built elsewhere in the county, Wight said.
DeSimone said Maggie can no longer act like an island but must integrate with the rest of the county. Maggie’s tourism stature has slipped over the past decade while Waynesville’s has grown, the mayor noted.
“Maggie is trying to be a good team player with the rest of Haywood County,” DeSimone said. “What is good for Maggie is good for the county at large, and vice-versa.”
What’s the room tax?
Anyone staying at a hotel, inn, resort, lodge, bed and breakfast, rental cabin or the like in Haywood County pays a 4 percent tax that’s tacked onto their room bill.
It currently brings in about $1 million a year, which goes toward tourism marketing campaigns, advertising, visitor center operations, travel brochures and web sites, festivals and sundry initiatives aimed at luring more tourists to Haywood.
A proposal would hike the tax to 6 percent, bringing in an additional $500,000. It would be earmarked specifically for tourism-related capital projects, such as tourism attractions and venues.