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Wallowa County transient lodging tax expansion will likely be back

County scuttles first attempt
Kathleen Ellyn

Wallowa County Chieftain

Published on September 12, 2018 8:33AM

A new Wallowa County transient lodging tax will not be on the ballot in November.

Commissioners withdrew the proposed ballot measure that would have increased transient lodging taxes in the unincorporated areas of the county at a special session Sept. 5.

The tax was proposed as a way to fund a portion of the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office budget and Wallowa County Fairgrounds operations.

The legality of the measure was challenged by David Hurley, owner of Eagle Cap Chalets at Wallowa Lake on Aug. 17. Attorney Benjamin Boyd of Hostetter Law Group represents Hurley.

Commissioners also received a letter for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association advising them that the issue was on their radar and suggested a fairgrounds concept plan for spending the projected $90,720 in tax revenue was a good course of action. That group recently challenged Bend for misallocations of lodging tax dollars and won.

On Aug. 24, Hurley also filed a suit alleging commissioners violated Oregon Public Meetings Law in at least 17 ways in moving ahead with the ballot initiative.

On Aug. 30, Boyd argued in Wallowa County Circuit Court that the county had failed to file both the measure and the ballot title. Sept. 5, was the last day to move forward for the county.

Commissioner Susan Roberts moved that the commission withdraw from the proposed measure.

“This is an issue that will likely come up again,” Nash said. “I will take full responsibility for not having better buy-in, but if we want to fight on it, I’m willing to fight. It’s not what I want to do.”

He reminded attending the commissioner’s meeting that as a representative of the cattle industry, he was accustomed to a fighting and had taken fights clear to the legislature. He declared that he continued to consider the burden of supporting the fairgrounds and providing for a stronger Sheriff’s Office were part of the tourism industry’s responsibility.

Lodging business owner Doug Buska of Joseph thanked Nash for his comments and recommended that the fair board be reshaped because of a mixed message –– creating a convention center and a desire to focus on the fair alone.

“Is it about the fair or is it about the convention center?” Buska asked.

As constituted, the fair board is tasked with producing a fair.

“That’s all they’re really appointed to do,” said Commissioner Roberts.

Despite Nash’s frequent referrals to the success of other counties at operating their fair grounds as tourism attractions, Wallowa County does not have full-time management staff. Counties with a robust convention center and other amenities have an overall fair manager, an event coordinator, a marketing manager, a volunteer coordinator and other organizational staff.

As Nash moved forward, volunteer members of the fair board have been sucked into providing proof of feasibility studies and master plans related to tourism they were not in their originally focus.

As a result, their legitimate fair-centric focus seemed at odds with Oregon statute, which states that to be eligible for lodging tax dollars, a convention facility must generate “a majority of its business income from tourists,” and that a “tourism-related facility” in general have a “substantial purpose of supporting tourism or accommodating tourist activities.”

Commissioner Roberts admitted that what was expected of fair boards had changed over time and suggested that more assistance was needed.

“I think ... over time we need to look at all of these things (changes of focus) and ... have another group of folks who are willing to step forward and work on a larger picture for what could occur down there and how we could get the funding and what does that mean for the larger community of Wallowa County.”

Roberts said the commission would spend some time looking into those changes of responsibility and focus, possible increase of oversight or planning help and then bring the issue forward again in the future.

As regards the ongoing suit for violations of pubic meetings law, attorney Boyd said his client “appreciated (Commissioner Nash’s) heart and his spirit for taking responsibility for what my client sees as some pretty egregious failures with the public meetings law. We were encouraged with his commitment ... to make his best efforts to the best of his ability to follow the proper procedures in the future.”

Nevertheless, the county has approximately a month to answer David Hurley’s complaint, served Aug. 28, and settle the suit.

Boyd pointed out that the ultimate issue, which could not be addressed in this case, remained “whether, as it stands, Wallowa County could levy an increase in the (TLT) in order to fund what Commission Nash wants to fund over there. That’s the ultimate issue, and it looks like it’s going to be for another day.”


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