Bed tax increase needs a second look

Editorial voice of the Chieftain

No one in Wallowa County is against making improvements to the fairgrounds. There are many needs.

But the idea of increasing the transient room tax to provide the revenue for the project appears to have hit a buzz-saw of opposition.

If you’ve ever booked a hotel room in the county, you know there is a tax, often called a “bed tax,” applied to the charge the lodge owner levies.

The current countywide motel tax rate is 5 percent, plus 1.8 percent state tax, and an additional 3 percent city tax in Enterprise and Joseph.

The lodging businesses in the unincorporated areas of Wallowa County, primarily Wallowa Lake charge a 6.8 percent tax per evening to their customers. They claim charging more would dent their revenue.

The current proposal would only increase the rate for businesses in the unincorporated areas, which doesn’t sit particularly well with hotels and motels around Wallowa Lake.

The goal is to raise money for the Wallowa County Sheriff’s office and improvement of the fairgrounds. Augmenting the sheriff’s budget clearly falls within state law governing uses of the bed tax. The legality of funding fairground improvements for a venue that is not tourist-related is a question that should be answered unequivocally before this proposal moves ahead.

The Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce is conducting a survey of its membership to determine support for the idea of increasing the bed tax in the unincorporated areas. It’s likely the results will show significant opposition.

Tourism isn’t a windfall for Wallowa County. Certainly not the revenue bump logging and milling were.

If every restaurant, hotel, motel, attraction and event is successful beyond imagination all summer long, very little revenue accrues to the county’s bottom line, except for the bed tax.

And most of that revenue is earmarked before it is even collected.

The amount that would be realized for fairground improvements from the proposed increase hardly seems enough to justify a bitter dispute. There are other ways to fund improvements, including grants and support from organizations within the community.

Funding for the sheriff’s office could become catastrophic if the city of Joseph makes good on its threat not to renew its $100,000-plus annual contract for policing.

It would almost certainly mean reducing the size of the sheriff’s office by one full-time deputy.

As with most things, the solid ground probably falls somewhere in the middle -- a smaller bed tax increase and dedicating the proceeds only to the sheriff’s office might be more beneficial to all concerned.

In the past year, the commissioners have scuttled the county library and the county health department. At some juncture, they are going to run out of things to chop to make the budget work.

Perhaps the larger issue is a broader strategy for increasing revenues to the county without anchoring it on the backs of a handful of business owners.

Many good ideas for accomplishing that surfaced during the recent county commission election. Now is the time to give them full consideration.

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