Mayor accused of misrepresenting MaggieBoard splits again on occupancy tax
Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone was called a liar and asked to resign by a couple of residents during a Tuesday meeting after being accused of misrepresenting the wishes of two aldermen and constituents.
DeSimone signed a letter on March 26 that was sent to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, that stated Maggie Valley and the other municipalities in Haywood County had reached consensus on supporting increasing the county occupancy tax from 4 percent to 6 percent.
But Aldermen Mike Matthews and Phillip Wight said that couldn’t be farther from the truth. During a March 12 meeting, Matthews agreed to support the legislation draft in front of him to increase the tax, bringing the board vote to 3-1. However, the bill introduced in Raleigh the next day was not the same language.
Matthews agreed to support a six-year sunset clause and a committee made up of 11 voting members. However, the current bill has a 10-year sunset clause and 15 committee members.
“That was a pretty big issue during our discussion,” Matthews said. He then made a motion to not support the occupancy tax increase. The vote was still 2-2 with DeSimone and Aldermen Saralyn Price in favor.
“My issue is that the letter is completely false,” Matthews said. “We were never in consensus on that.”
DeSimone said the letter was part of the negotiations between the municipalities. He said he didn’t write the letter but read it and signed it.
Matthews said the Maggie Valley board should have been in agreement before negotiating with other municipalities.
“Ron, that was a bold faced lie,” he said, yelling at DeSimone.
During public input, Allen Alsbrooks, innkeeper with Hearth and Home Inn, said he was very offended that DeSimone would say such things about the residents of Maggie.
“The only thing that would make me happy right now is for you to resign,” he said to DeSimone.
The letter states that the tax increase, which would be used to fund capital tourism projects, would be paid by those using the service and would not be a burden on citizens.
“We realize that a small yet extremely vocal group of citizens have expressed concerns. The majority of these concerns have not been based on facts but rather unfounded opinions, misinformation and ideologies,” the letter stated.
Several other residents, including Johnnie Cure of Waynesville, also said they were offended by the letter because it undermined the intelligence of those opposed.
“If this isn’t a violation of the code of ethics, the Freedom of Information Act or another statute, it is definitely a violation of the public’s trust,” Wight read from a prepared statement.
DeSimone did a survey of occupancy tax collectors in Maggie Valley and said owners that represent 64 percent of the rentals (1,400 units) were in support of the tax.
Residents complained that using the percentage of units was not a fair representation of support. Alsbrooks said it should be counted as one vote per person. On the other hand, DeSimone said he had yet to see documentation proving a majority of the lodging industry was opposed to the legislation.
Matthews questioned what DeSimone told the lodging owners to get them to support the bill and asked why Jim Blyth, who works closely with DeSimone, was the one going to see the lodging owners with a prepared letter to send to Davis.
Resident Charles Meadows claimed Blyth and DeSimone were promising the additional money would come back to Maggie. He said the mayor was supposed to represent everyone in the valley and called for him to step down from office.
The letter Blyth provided to lodging owners in support of the added tax stated, “… this tax is a tax on our industry for the benefit of our industry and quite frankly without the tax dollars for county and city sponsored capital projects, there is no money to fund projects like a trolley system, ice skating rink, ball parks, street scape…” Those in support of the issue were asked to sign, and they were then sent to Davis.
Meadows accused DeSimone of pushing the issue because the projects may benefit his construction business.
DeSimone said that was ridiculous because it is against the law for his business to even bid on those projects.
Colin Edwards, a former alderman, said he would like to see the issue put on a countywide referendum to gauge real support.
At Wight and Matthews’ request, the board agreed to send Davis another letter stating that the board was still split on the issue.
In a follow-up interview Wednesday, DeSimone said it was fair to measure support for the bill based on the number of rental units.
“If they are producing 64 percent of the tax then they should have 64 percent of the say,” he said.
As for the letter he sent to Davis, he said he doesn’t think he misrepresented the majority of constituents and doesn’t regret its content.
“I heard from several people that they are fundamentally opposed to tax increases of any kind, and that’s an ideology,” he said.
DeSimone said he isn’t sure what would happen next with the legislation. With all the “badgering” the opposition has done to Davis, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the bill didn’t go through.
Wight said he would be agreeable to having the additional 2-percent revenue divided amongst the municipalities.
“I want the revenue stream sent back home. I’ve seen how well the 1 percent benefits our municipalities,” he said. He also wants to know for sure what the money would be spent on “instead of begging for a project. I’m not banking on a dream.”
DeSimone argued that the tax bill isn’t about any specific project.
“This is about having the ability to choose the projects,” he said.