Curry County commissioners are ready to put a 7 percent Transient Lodging Tax ballot question to the voters again next May under the belief that a detailed explanation of how revenue would be spent will be acceptable to voters.

The county has been trying for years to find a long-term, sustainable revenue source since timber tax revenue started to trickle away. All property tax increase referendums — including a citizen-driven one to fund emergency services — have been resoundingly defeated by voters, many of whom told commissioners to find an alternative revenue source that takes the burden off property owners.

The last time the county proposed a TLT tax — paid for by visitors who stay overnight in hotels, inns and other accommodations — voters rejected it, as well.

The difference is that this iteration, crafted by the county’s Citizens Revenue Task Force and requiring a second ordinance to implement the tax, would require the county’s 25 percent allocation of tax revenue to be overseen, with board approval, by a tourism advisory committee, similar to that which operates in Brookings.

“The commissioners would approve the big business plan, then implementing it is the seven-person committee that says, ‘We’ll grant $20,000 to so and so,’” explained task force chair Carl King. “(For example) The county could say ‘$50,000 should be spent on riverfront activities,’ and the committee will say, ‘We should give $10,000 to a PR firm for promotional materials for riverfront activities.’ The nickels and dimes are to be spent by the committee, not the commissioners.”

TLT history

Brookings and Gold Beach each charge 6 percent, and Port Orford charges 7 percent to visitors staying at their facilities. The state TLT adds another 1.8 percent — a figure that is slated to drop to 1.5 percent in 2020.

By state law, 70 percent of revenue generated by a TLT must be spent on tourism promotion. The remainder can be spent however the jurisdiction sees fit, although Brookings was grandfathered in, having created a TLT before state law formalizing it was approved. There, 75 percent of TLT revenue goes to the city’s coffers and the remainder to tourism promotion.

The county’s referendum presented in 2015 would have allocated the county’s share to the general fund.

The latest proposal, with which the task force will proceed, would implement a 7 percent tax those who stay in accommodations in unincorporated Curry County. Using 2017 figures, that could generate about $905,662, 5 percent would fund the administration involved in collecting the tax, and the remaining $215,095 would be dedicated to county sheriff’s patrols.

“This doesn’t really solve the overall shortfall of the county,” said Administrator Clark Schroeder. “So simultaneously, we’re working on the big fix — what it will take to sustain the county in the long run.”

A lack of trust

A couple of the task force members said they believe the issue failed in 2015 because those in the tourism industry didn’t trust the commissioners would spent the county allocation wisely.

“The reason we think that is key, is that no one believed the voters would vote yes on a proposal that hands into the hands of the Board of Commissioners — with no other control other than budgetary — $600,000,” King said.

Commissioner Tom Huxley asked if any in the industry had been consulted before the task force developed its latest proposal.

“That was the main point of contention in 2015,” Huxley said. “No one even asked them to participate with the individuals who presented the tax.”

Task force member David Hoenie said that was addressed this go-round.

“We were in a meeting with one of the people who was our biggest opponent,” he said of people in the industry who campaigned against the 2015 referendum. “This covered their biggest complaint, that they didn’t feel that the way the (2015 referendum) was written, that the money would be spent effectively. This (proposal) isn’t just a lump of money thrown into the general fund.”

Former Curry County Fair manager Ron Crook said some of them were the impetus for a group of citizens to re-evaluate the TLT in July — well before the county created the task force.

“They came to us and urged us to do something,” he said. “They are the basis for what we presented. From the very start, we had input. They wanted it specified where the money was going.”

Commissioner Sue Gold noted that when people are on vacation, they expect a lodging tax and don’t take much notice of it when they pay their bill. And few people base their vacation destination on the cost of a hotel tax, she added.

Transparency

Another issue this and past commissioner boards have faced is the transparency used when spending taxpayer dollars. And the task force said results are key.

“You can get somebody to go anywhere one time, but unless they return two, three times, it isn’t working,” Hoenie said. “You’ll be throwing money away hoping someone will show up.”

“You can have all the great bells and whistles — the pictures, the internet — but if they get here and don’t see it, they won’t come back,” said fairground board member Bob Chibante. “Then you no longer have the opportunity.

He noted that if the locals see results — primarily, more tourists and infrastructure improvements — other revenue-generating proposals could be more palatable in the future.

“I think the public would like to see something happen with this money, rather than just go down a hole,” said Commissioner Sue Gold. “I want to see results.”

Hoenie agreed, noting that if the tourists don’t also see results they will be less likely to return.

The county’s portion of revenue in the 2015 TLT proposal would have primarily funded the county fairground, which draws thousands of people every year to events. It is in dire need of basic maintenance, officials there say, and could generate additional revenue countywide if it were expanded, as well.

Most agreed, too, that visitors use county services and yet don’t directly pay for them — with the exception of the gas tax in Brookings that helps fund road repairs.

Commissioner Court Boice said he hopes any tourism efforts will benefit the entire county.

“We’re getting the word out,” said task force member Bill Ostrowski. “More importantly, the PAC needs to know the board of commissioners is behind the proposal, that you are united in this. That will go a long way with voters.”

King noted too, that the task force is examining the feasibility of tax on prepared-food such as that served in restaurants — and then “the big fix” for the county.

“Everyone on the task force is committed to get out, meet with groups of people,” he said. “We’re ready to move.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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