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Local leaders unhappy about tax hike effort

By Jessie Burchette
Salisbury Post
An effort to double the hotel/motel occupancy tax and create a Salisbury city tourism authority is dead for this year.
And the director of the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority has come under fire from county officials for being part of it.
The city of Salisbury will hold a public hearing Tuesday on enacting an additional 3 percent occupancy tax and establishing a Salisbury Tourism and Development Authority. But City Councilman Bill Burgin and local legislators agree there will be no legislation this year.
On Wednesday, county commissioners invited the Tourism Development Authority to bring its case for increasing the occupancy tax to them.
The current Rowan occupancy tax is 3 percent, which is projected to net around $330,000 in the coming year. State law allows a maximum of 6 percent ó but a vote by the legislature is required to make that jump.
County commissioners and City Council members attended the tourism authority’s Wednesday meeting.
James Meacham, hired as the tourism director in March 2007, worked with city officials to guide them through the process of getting a local bill ready for the General Assembly, including calling legislators over the weekend and meeting with them in Raleigh on Tuesday to push for the bill.
Arnold Chamberlain, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the city is within its powers to work to set up a separate tourism development authority. “But it doesn’t make it right,” said Chamberlain, comparing it to the city’s recent annexation effort.
“James did overstep his bounds,” Chamberlain said.
Commissioner Tina Hall, a member of the tourism board, said the board did give Meacham leeway to work with the city on increasing the tourism tax. But, she said, there was never any mention of creating a new city tourism authority or contacting legislators.
Hall criticized Meacham’s failure to keep the tourism board informed. “It leaves a bad taste,” she said.
Don Bringle, president of the tourism board, said the board gave Meacham directions in January to work with the city. But, he said, Meacham “got a little deeper than he should have without notification to the board.”
Meacham apologized but never said that he had acted improperly. He noted that as the official spokesman for the Tourism Development Authority, he was authorized to talk with legislators.
“If I overstepped, I apologize,” said Meacham. When he was hired, he said, the search committee stressed the board’s interest in increasing the occupancy tax from 3 to 6 percent.
Burgin, who served on the tourism board four years, agreed with Chamberlain that it doesn’t make sense to have two tourism authorities or two boards. Burgin said the city’s intent was to contract with Meacham and his staff to operate the city tourism effort.
Burgin said the tourism board had wanted to increase the occupancy tax for several years and been told county commissioners had no interest.
Burgin said the real issue was getting the additional 3 percent to promote tourism in the city and the county. If the county is willing to increase the tax by 3 percent, he said, he will make a motion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to drop the enabling legislation.
Burgin repeatedly said the city and county are integrally connected for tourism. He also noted that 98 percent of the hotel rooms are in the city of Salisbury.
Burgin apologized for asking Meacham to help, and he cited the May 21 deadline to get a local bill introduced.
“I understand it’s not going to happen in this session,” said Burgin, adding, “One of us needs to do it (raise the occupancy tax).”
Chamberlain said there has been “chit-chat” between some tourism board members and commissioners over the years, but there has been no official request and no presentation to the Board of Commissioners.
He said the move was an effort to go around commissioners and “rubs me wrong.”
“If you want the 6 percent occupancy tax, have the guts to make a presentation to us …” Chamberlain said.
He said he has questions about elements of the occupancy tax, and he wants the answers from experts.
At several points, Chamberlain said all tourism authority members are appointed by the commissioners, with the exception of Mark Lewis, the City Council representative.
Initially, the authority operated directly under county supervision. In 2001, the county cut many of its ties, making it a stand-alone organization.
Burgin cited the common ground for the county and city in working together to bolster tourism through the authority.
Dan Peters, tourism board member, said two development authorities would deplete the resources available to promote tourism.
Commissioner Jim Sides said tourism is important to the county and all its municipalities. He wants to see justification for raising the tax, regardless of who pays. “We don’t raise taxes just because we can.”
“We have good reasons,” said Peters, assuring commissioners that they can make the case.
Among the reasons is the lack of resources to compete with neighboring counties for tourists. Most neighboring tourism authorities have a 6 percent occupancy tax.
Meacham, Bringle and Lewis laid out the hurried effort to create a city tourism authority and get a 3 percent occupancy tax.
County commissioners became aware of the effort over the weekend and quickly acted to stop it.
Reps. Lorene Coates and Fred Steen say they will not introduce a local bill proposed by Salisbury.
Coates said Wednesday that Meacham and Morris called her over the weekend and Meacham visited with her and Steen in Raleigh on Tuesday, urging support and passage of the bill.
Coates said she was not aware of any dissension or opposition until Tuesday when she received an e-mail from Sides which stated at least three commissioners opposed the creation of a second tourism authority.
“If I understand correctly,” Sides said, “if the city of Salisbury is allowed to proceed in this direction, Rowan County will forever be capped at the current 3 percent …”
Once the legislators became aware of county opposition, they agreed they will not introduce a bill.
Steen said no controversial bills are filed in the short session, adding, “We should have known eight weeks ago.”
“They need to get their act together. They don’t need to talk to anybody until then,” Coates said.
Lewis passed out copies of the city’s goals from its February 2007 retreat. One of the goals is to “initiate actions to increase the occupancy tax rate from $.03 to $.06 in Salisbury.” A similar goal was adopted at the February 2008 retreat.
Lewis also cited minutes of the Jan. 9 meeting of the County Tourism Development Authority, which said the board unanimously approved a motion for Meacham to work with the city of Salisbury on its goal to establish an occupancy tax within the city and report back.
At Tuesday’s session, Hall said there was no mention of creating a second tourism authority. She recalled that Lewis had made some reference to a long-range plan, but said, “I never dreamed a long-range plan was next month.”
Lewis said the approaching May 21 deadline for local bills caused the “fast and furious” pace. He went to city Planning Director Joe Morris, he said, “telling him to get working on it” and schedule the public hearing.
Lewis said he asked Meacham last Thursday to go with him to meet with the legislative delegation, but the legislators were out of town. Lewis said he asked Meacham to meet with them Tuesday during a previously planned trip to Raleigh.
“Did he overstep his bounds? Did he lobby? I don’t think it happened,” Lewis said. “James did what he was supposed to.”
Lewis said he apparently made a protocol mistake by not calling Commissioner Hall and Chairman Chamberlain to “ask for an audience.”
The tourism board came close to seeking an increase in the occupancy tax in 2006, but missed the deadline for local bills.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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