No decisions have yet been made on increasing the Wallowa County Transient Lodging Tax.
County Commissioners discussed the matter briefly at an April 16 hearing. The tax brings in approximately $360,000 per year.
A collection of hoteliers and other interested parties have now met twice, along with County Commissioner Todd Nash, to discuss the idea of raising Wallowa County lodging taxes to nearly 15 percent.
Nash emphasized that the tax was merely being discussed and that commissioners had made no plans or formal proposals.
The idea has been floated in an effort to come up with funds for both the Sheriff’s Office and the Wallowa County Fairgrounds.
There are obstacles to raising the tax in addition to gaining the support of the lodging community.
Oregon Statue prohibits the use of lodging tax money for anything but “tourism promotion,” support of “tourism related facilities” and city and county services.
Can the fairgrounds be considered a “tourist related facility?”
“We don’t know,” said Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts. “Not enough research has been done.”
The Association of Oregon Counties has said they are not aware fairgrounds qualify as tourist-related facilities. No specific reference to fairgrounds is found in Oregon Revised Statutes related to transient lodging tax, but a decision made by the Oregon Attorney General in 2008 specifically disallows any facility that is used by the community as much as by tourists.
Linn County is looking at imposing a transient tax as a way to help fund tourism throughout the county and to help support the Expo Center in the city of Albany — but the Expo center is “unquestionably a tourist related facility, a business, and is not a fairgrounds,” explained Linn County Commissioner John Lindsey.
“We (free) lease that facility to the fair board for two weeks,” he said. “In Linn County the fair is an event, not a location.”
The second obstacle is that Wallowa County ordinance has already earmarked transient lodging tax money and “fairgrounds” does not have a notched ear. The allocations are 20 percent to Wallowa County Health Care District Emergency Services Department; 10 percent to the Wallowa County Search and Rescue Unit; 5 percent to Wallowa County Solid Waste Program, 15 percent to tourism, recreation, economic development, city or county parks or other worthy County projects as recommended by the board. Fifty percent is to go to the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce of which at least 50 percent is budgeted for tourism and business development promotion within Wallowa County.
What this means is that even if the fairgrounds is eligible to receive funds, the Wallowa County ordinance would have to be modified to allow new taxes to support it.
Such changes to ordinance would require a commission vote.
A third obstacle is that cities would have to provide a resolution of approval for the tax to apply to hoteliers within city limits. If cities did not provide a resolution of approval, only county-based hoteliers would pay the increased taxes.
All lodging at Wallowa Lake is outside of city limits. That means the brunt of any new taxes not supported by cities would be borne by lake businesses. Business leaders there say the south end of the county would be the primary support for the fairgrounds.
“I’m a supporter of the fair, but I’m deeply concerned about the well-being of south end businesses,” said Michael Lockhart, president of the Wallowa Lake Tourism Committee and a city council member in Joseph.
By Lockhart’s calculations, businesses throughout the county stand to lose if the tax is raised.
“To say that the taxes are paid by the tourists is just not correct. Lodging businesses are going to have to make calculations about what they can reasonably charge when they’re charging more in taxes,” he said.