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."

Comments (3)
Posted by: Scott Lilly | Jan 10, 2014 09:30

Maybe the headline should read: Local politicians desire more local hotel tax without any plan for funds.  I mean if you want to collect a tax for example to improve South Main Street or the Junaluska public works, say so and put it out there to be considered.  But just to say "we want more" is just sloppy government -- as a general statement.  If Haywood County did get $425,000/year by increasing costs for visitors, can one imagine how well Waynesville, Canton, and Maggie Valley towns would share those funds with those outside their town limits?  And then how each municipality would share those funds even within their own towns?  The catch-phrase in the story is "earmarked".  Government can consider an "earmark" a suggestion -- one they have no obligation to respect or agree.

 

I'd like to see a little experiment: Let's have an "earmark visitor tax" where all the area hotels can choose to tax their customers or not.  Each hotel can make up their own mind and they can change their mind year-to-year.  After 5 years, how well do you think that "earmark system" will work?  I'm thinking the "earmark" use of the funds is the objectionable part to which Ms. Presnell makes.  Senator Queen, if you think she's making "empty rhetoric", call her on it!  Make a specific capital improvement proposal to which Ms. Presnell can consider a capital improvement grant -- one which you can argue that should be prioritized more than other government spending.  I mean if there is a proposal to build square dancing benches in front of the courthouse, I honestly would vote for it!  Heck, I might even volunteer to do it myself.  (Those square dances are such a tourism treasure for North Main.)  But then, those from Maggie Valley might not appreciate us taking their visitor's money and using that in front of the Haywood County Courthouse.  Or those from South Waynesville might not appreciate taking money collected by Waynesville Inn and sending that "uptown".  And even those just off North Main Street might be frustrated they didn't get benches in front of their businesses.  (And so on.)

 

And on the topic of taxes, will a tax on visitors INCREASE tourism revenue or DECREASE tourism revenue?  Look at it this way, if you DECREASE taxes from 4% to -4%, then anyone booking a hotel room in Haywood county would get a 4% discount on their stay -- courtesy of local government.  If Haywood County hotels have lower rates than Buncome County, then would we be more competitive and therefore siphon tourism dollars from our neighbors?  Or would making Haywood hotel rates more expensive drive tourists to other nearby counties?  One very important group of people's opinion not mentioned in the story: the hotel/inn/B&B owners whose customers we're proposing to tax.  Or the people who wait tables who serve those (fewer) customers that have to pay more tax.  Or most any shop on Main Street that thrive when more people visit.

I also look forward to when common sense will rule the day.

 



Posted by: Penny R Wallace | Jan 12, 2014 09:04

Let's start at the very beginning.  Make a plan, figure out how much it will cost then move forward. Who will (or has) developed a plan that prompted the proposed increase?  I'm not opposed to the increase if one exists. If not, get the drawing board out and get to work. What I haven't seen are proposals that include broad range plans to attract middle income families for activities enjoyed by 21st Century citizens.



Posted by: Beth G. Johnson | Jan 13, 2014 12:42

Since most of the elected leaders of Haywood County approve of an increase occupancy tax, I think Ms. Presnell should not block it unilaterally.  However, an exact plan for using the money should be agreed upon by the affected municipalities.



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