The room tax increase ultimately must be approved by the N.C. General Assembly. The deadline to get a bill introduced this year is just two weeks away.
The movement to increase the lodging tax caught some Maggie lodging owners by surprise. Several at the meeting Monday expressed that the process was moving too fast for their comfort.
“We feel that the bill, as proposed, is being ‘fast tracked’ without adequate research as to its implementation and impact,” said Karen Hession, president of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association, reading an open letter from organization members.
The Maggie lodging association met Friday to talk about the TDA’s proposal and, Hession said, the feeling toward an increase was mostly negative.
“This is something they are strongly against,” Hession said.
The lodging association staunchly opposed the increase — which would be tacked on to the bill of overnight guests — arguing that it would drive away business.
However, a number of individual lodging owners were not necessarily against an increase but rather disliked the way the idea arose and the lack of in-depth planning for how the tourism authority will spend it.
Joanne Martin, owner of Fireside Cottages, recalled the idea of a lodging tax increase being mentioned briefly at meeting in Maggie earlier this year, but it came across as merely an idea floating around. Then the next week, Martin said, it was on the TDA board’s agenda.
“I have a lot of reservations,” Martin said. “Where was this being discussed?”
The tourism agency has worked quickly during the last few weeks to get support for the proposed 2 percent increase. With the TDA and board of commissioners’ blessing, state representatives will draft and introduce a bill into the N.C. General Assembly that, if passed, would allow Haywood County to raise its lodging tax.
However, the increase will not occur automatically even with the passage of the legislation in Raleigh. The county commissioners would have to hold a public hearing and formally enact the increase.
Throughout the meeting, speakers insisted that the tourism authority nail down projects that the additional tax money could fund and how it would distribute the money.
“We need a marketing plan; we need to know where it’s going,” Martin said.
However, members of the tourism board and Mayor Ron DeSimone countered calls for a predetermined plan for how the money would be spent. The county should not draft guidelines and to-do lists for money it doesn’t have, he said.
“You might be making a plan for something you can’t implement,” agreed Rob Edwards, a tourism authority board member and Maggie lodging owner.
When the county upped its lodging tax from 3 to 4 percent several years ago, the legislation dialed in on the process for divvying up and parceling out the money among geographic locales in the county and even set up a system of subcommittees to help oversee the money.
However, Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood tourism authority, said there were still unknowns that were hammered out after the bill was passed, such as how to apply for the new money and more specifics about what it might fund.
“Each of the communities did not have a plan for that money,” Collins said. “It sat there and built up until people figured out what it was for.”
Speaker after speaker Monday said they did not believe that Maggie Valley was getting back what it contributes to the tourism authority. Maggie Valley’s motels, hotels and vacation rentals account for 55 percent of the total lodging tax collected in Haywood County.
And thus Maggie should get back a greater share to spend in its own neck of the woods, on tourism initiatives that would specifically help Maggie, lodging owners argued.
“It would be a fair team if we were all bringing the same amount to the table,” said Tammy Wight, a Maggie lodging owner. “Why do we want to give other people control of our percentage?”
Maggie at one time was the tourism kingpin of the county and accounted for two-thirds of the total lodging tax revenue countywide. But Maggie has slipped, while Waynesville has gained during recent years.
“We are actually losing percentage. We are not growing; we are dropping,” said TDA board member Beth Brown, adding that Maggie residents and business owners need to think about more than just the town. “We are not just Maggie Valley; we are Haywood County.”
Where they stand
The Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen will weigh in on the proposed 2 percent lodging tax increase on Thursday (Feb. 28). Haywood County Commissioners and the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority have unanimously supported the increase already, but it must be approved by the N.C. General Assembly.
While no other towns had officially weighed in as of press time Tuesday, the tourism-centric community of Maggie is the only one where major opposition seems to be brewing.
Maggie Aldermen Mike Matthews said he would support the tax increase if it has a sunset clause and if the committee that decides how the money is spent has geographically proportional representation. The part of the county that brings in the most revenue from the tax should have the biggest voice on the committee.
“I want to say, ‘I am for it if’ …’” Matthews said.
Alderwoman Saralyn Price and Mayor Ron DeSimone both voiced their support for the measure.
Alderman Phillip Wight wanted more time to mull over the TDA’s proposed tax increase, so the board agreed to revisit the matter at its 9 a.m. budget meeting on Thursday at town hall.
What’s the room tax?
A 4 percent tax added to guests’ bills staying at hotels, motels, B&Bs and vacation rentals brings in $900,000 a year, which goes toward tourism promotions and initiatives aimed at luring even more tourists to the county.
A 2 percent increase would bring in an extra $450,000 annually, specifically for tourism-related capital projects.