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Wednesday, 08 February 2017 15:12

Proposed room tax hike already in jeopardy

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A renewed effort to increase Haywood County’s room occupancy tax from 4 to 6 percent has already run into almost as much opposition as it has in previous years, calling into question its chances of passage in the state legislature. 

On Jan. 25, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority unanimously passed a resolution calling for an increase in the tax on overnight stays in hotel rooms, inns, B&Bs or any other overnight accommodations that also charge a sales tax. 

That unanimity came only after TDA board member Pratik Shah, who initially indicated he’d vote no on the resolution, voiced concerns over the accountability and efficacy of TDA spending intended to draw overnight visitors to the county. 

While Shah — general manager of the Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn in Waynesville — changed his vote to yes after prodding by TDA board members, newly elected Haywood County Commissioner Brandon Rogers changed his mind altogether. 

During the Haywood County Board of Commissioners meeting Feb. 6, Rogers let it be known that after what he called some “soul searching,” he’d vote no on a county resolution encouraging state legislation that would enable the county to begin charging 6 percent on lodging. 

“When I first looked at it, I thought, ‘How could anybody be against this?’” Rogers said during the meeting. 

During the campaign last fall, Rogers expressed his support for the increase, which at that point was just a rumor. 

After the TDA passed its resolution in late January, the TDA encouraged municipalities to issue statements or resolutions supporting the measure. 

When that resolution came before county commissioners, it passed 4 to 1, with Rogers the lone holdout. Even fellow Republican Commissioner Kevin Ensley supported the measure, as he had previously.

“It’s an economic development tool, in my opinion,” Ensley said. “It’s not a tax on anyone in the county; they come here, use our services, I think they can give something back to our community.”

Rogers said he’d “searched his soul” since the election, and said he had “run his whole campaign” on the premise of raising taxes only as a last resort. 

Ensley said he was surprised by Rogers’ about-face.

“We [commission candidates Robin Black, Steve Brown, Ensley, and Rogers] all campaigned on it,” said Ensley. “But sometimes it’s tough, because things come to the surface — facts you didn’t know. But during a campaign if you say you’re going to do something, you should do it. That’s what I always try to do.”

To justify his position, Rogers cited stats that show TDA revenue has been growing year-over-year at the current 4 percent level, and opined that the tax wasn’t really needed. 

Although Rogers continues to be in the minority on the issue, his defiance is significant in that the last time such a measure was proffered in 2013, it was endorsed unanimously by commissioners — all of whom continue to serve as commissioners except for then-Chairman Mark Swanger, who declined to stand for re-election in 2016. 

In fact, resolutions in support of the 2013 attempt were passed unanimously in all Haywood municipalities except Maggie Valley, where Republican Aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews opposed it. 

Matthews won election as Haywood County’s tax collector in 2014 (see page 12) and is no longer an alderman, and Wight — still a Maggie Valley alderman and motel owner himself — worked with the TDA this time around to craft the new measure, which rectifies spending concerns he held last time around. 

The major difference in proposals is that previously, all of the 2 percent revenue would have gone directly to the TDA; now, half would go to the TDA with the other half returning to the zip codes from whence it came. TDA executive director Lynn Collins told county commissioners Feb. 6 she expected a 2 percent hike to generate an additional $650,000 in its first year. 

For the proposal to be enacted, it must receive unanimous support from Haywood County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City and Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville.

Presnell prevented the measure from being passed in 2013, and in November 2016 said she generally doesn’t vote for these types of proposals — not just in her own district, but anywhere; she hasn’t responded to requests for comment on the current proposal.

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