Legislator can block tourism, economic development hopes

By Vicki Hyatt | Jan 10, 2014
Photo by: File photo N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell is the lone vote standing in the way of tourism projects in Haywood County.

While it would technically be possible to resurrect legislation that increases overnight visitor fees in Haywood County, the issue is a nonstarter unless N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell changes her mind.

The measure to add an extra 2 percent fee to be collected by Haywood accommodation owners was stalled in the last legislative session. The rules governing the introduction of local bills would allow the matter to resurface in the short legislative session that starts in May, but as is the case with all local bills, there must be a consensus among all the legislative delegation of a county or region before the bill can advance.

In this case, the measure projected to raise $425,000 in Haywood that would be earmarked for tourism-related capital projects, would need support from Presnell, a Burnsville Republican, N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, a Waynesville Democrat, and N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, a Franklin Republican.

Both Davis and Queen introduced the bill increasing Haywood’s occupancy tax from 4 to 6 percent in the last legislative session in their respective chambers, and both say they are unwavering in their support.

“I’m not going to stand in the way of what people want in Haywood County,” Davis said. “I have always been a strong proponent of local government. I won’t do local government’s job for them, nor will I stand in the way of what local government wants.”

Last year, every elected official in Haywood County except two Maggie Valley aldermen favored the bill. One of those aldermen, Mike Matthews, lost his re-election bid, and two new Maggie board members spoke in favor of the bill during their campaigns.

Queen said since Presnell is in the majority party, her opposition to the measure means it will go nowhere.

“If she insists that they do not do not allow this tax in her district, the majority in the house won’t do it,” Queen said, calling the stance puzzling. “It is a tax on the visitors to our region, not a tax on us as residents, and the funds are used to attract more business which creates jobs for our residents. It’s an economic development and jobs strategy for Haywood County, and it makes all the sense in the world.”

Presnell said she supported a number of the projects county leaders would like to accomplish but said she couldn't vote for a tax increase.

“It may not be taxing people of Haywood County, but it’s taxing visitors who come in there.” Presnell said. “They tend to go from one hotel to the next seeing how low is your rate.”

Then there’s the issue of who will maintain the capital projects — items mentioned included Canton ball fields, an ice skating rink, or upgrading existing facilities such as Camp Hope or greenways in the county.

Presnell expressed concern about taxpayers having to shoulder maintenance costs and on how the funds would be used.

“The thing is, you can’t guarantee where the money is going to be going. A group makes the choices,” said Presnell about the bill that included a Product Development Committee appointed by the county commissioners to review and evaluate project proposals. This committee would make recommendations to the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority on how available funds should be spent.

Presnell said she would prefer to see state funds funneled into the county to help with capital projects as that is existing funding, not a new tax.

"I'll look into another genre, maybe some kind of a grant," Presnell said.

Queen called this "empty rhetoric" and something that simply wouldn't happen.

"She wants to take money from education or health care, which is 85 percent of the budget and has already been cut to the bone?" Queen asked. "If she doesn’t want to raise any taxes anywhere, there's no new money, so they have to take it away from somebody. Where are they going to get it?"

Local support

Local government leaders express continued support for the measure.

"There's virtually unanimous support among elected officials in Haywood County for an increased occupancy tax because it would greatly benefit the citizens of our county, who would not be paying the tax at all," said Haywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger. "I'm very disappointed that Rep. Presnell would not support the wishes of the vast majority of her constituents in Haywood County."

Canton Mayor Mike Ray called the increased occupancy tax measure a good opportunity to for Canton and other municipalities to make improvements without straining municipal budgets.

“I’m very much for this because all our budgets are pushed to keep services and amenities in place,” said Ray. “Any project done would reap economic development benefits for our county and would help our county as a whole.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown noted the town board unanimously supported the measure last year, and sees nothing that would change that agreement.

“I have no specific project as such, but agree that a dedicated source of funding for capital projects would be beneficial for the entire county,” Brown said.

The N.C. General Assembly must first approve any occupancy tax increase before local government can count on the extra funds to strategically expand Haywood's tourism industry.

"I am for local control on occupancy tax," Queen said. "If locals want to do it, I’ll continue to support it. Hopefully we’ll get a break in the politics where common sense will rule the day again."