Clampitt ceases effort to legislate Swain TDA changes
New bill includes 2% occupancy tax increase
After some back and forth, things at the Swain County TDA are looking a bit more like the county had hoped.
But that wasn’t always the case. Earlier in the summer, in an omnibus bill that addressed occupancy taxes statewide, Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) not only omitted a 2% increase in the occupancy tax, he also placed additional administrative constraints on the county’s tourism development authority. The bill sought to essentially create a joint TDA featuring board members from both Bryson City and Swain County with taxes collected in town going to a separate account.
His effort was similar to one he tried last year. This time, it didn’t take long for local leaders to cry foul.
A Smoky Mountain Times story on the bill cited a two-page statement issued by county commissioners. The statement praises Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) for trying to raise the occupancy rate from 4% to 6% after hearing their request, while also criticizing Clampitt for stripping that language out of the House omnibus bill.
“He did not advise the commissioners in advance of his intention to dismantle Sen. Corbin’s bill and legislatively amend the original enabling legislation for Swain County to have legal authority to collect the occupancy taxes from visitors,” the statement read.
The statement says the proposal would impose burdensome restrictions on how the TDA can spend occupancy taxes for both the town and county. It also notes that the increase in occupancy taxes is necessary, because as more visitors flock to the area, there is a growing need for services.
“Now is not the time for state mandated structural and administrative changes, and a possible return to a contentious atmosphere where interest groups and individual agendas take precedent over the overall good of our community,” the statement reads. “We can and must work harmoniously together, which is in progress. We don’t need, nor want, a legislative mandate from Raleigh that would expunge a 37-year-old law that has helped bring millions of dollars to our community from visitor expenditures through visitor-imposed occupancy taxes by imposing something that we, as your locally elected leaders, did not request.”
The feud between Clampitt and county leaders is nothing new. Last year, Clampitt proposed unifying the county’s emergency services with Bryson City’s. However, commissioners bristled at the perceived intrusion into local affairs. At that time , then Swain County Commission Chair Ben Bushyhead and Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton signed a letter addressed to Clampitt saying that locals weren’t in favor of the plan. At that time, when asked by The Smoky Mountain News whether it was even worth sitting down and listening to Clampitt’s plan, Sutton made his perspective clear.
“We didn’t send him that letter because we wanted to come and think about it,” Sutton said. “I appreciate Mike’s enthusiasm, but we want to have our volunteers onboard for something like that. I was not interested in spending my Saturday afternoon listening to a message that I thought was off the mark.”
This time, there was a meeting attended by Clampitt, Swain County Commissioners Kevin Seagle and Roger Parsons, Bryson City Alderman Tim Hines and Mayor Sutton, Bryson City Town Manager Sam Patillo and TDA Board Chair Jeremiah Wiggins.
Clampitt said he thought the meeting was productive, and it was after that meeting that he chose to withdraw his portion of the omnibus bill. He said concerns he voiced about transparency and accountability regarding TDA spending were heard, he heard the concerns of other stakeholders present, and that’s why he agreed to withdraw his bill and let Corbin’s get voted through.
“I think concerns I brought to the board, county and town were well addressed and they genuinely acknowledged concerns,” he said.
Along with serving as county commission chair, Seagle has been the commission’s representative on the TDA board for a few months now. He said the meeting was a bit heated at times, but he agreed that everyone was heard. However, he was also clear that he felt the TDA board has been and still is working efficiently and transparently.
“We’re getting a lot of stuff done,” he said. “I’ve only been here for a few meetings, but it seems like they’re working well together. I think Mike’s perception of the TDA board is something he’s hearing from other people and not necessarily knowing what they’re doing.”
While Seagle said he disagreed with some of what Clampitt was trying to achieve through legislation, he said he was willing to work with him going forward toward whatever’s in the best interest of the county, and in this case, the TDA.
Sen. Corbin said he was happy to lead the effort to bump up the occupancy tax from 4% to 6% since it’s what the folks in Swain County seemed to want, and although it’s technically a tax increase, he was OK with that since the burden doesn’t fall on residents or business owners. Corbin noted that the bill was the first in about 10 years to bump up an occupancy tax and that Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), a fellow Western North Carolinian, helped him move it through.
“I did that at the request of Swain County,” Corbin said. “They came to me at the beginning of the session and asked if I would run a clean occupancy tax bill allowing them to charge 2%. It’s a tax on tourists; I normally hesitate to increase any tax, but this is a tax people pay who come to visit Swain County.”
While there was disagreement between Clampitt and Swain County leaders, and Corbin did put forward the bill to raise its occupancy tax at the behest of the county, something Clampitt would not do, Corbin was clear that he still considers Clampitt a friend and ally in Raleigh. Clampitt echoed the sentiment.
“Sen. Corbin and I have a great working relationship,” he said. “That relationship is based on communication and knowing what the other is doing on the other side of the General Assembly, and that will continue to stay that way.”