Lodging representatives question county on tax


   Only a couple representatives of the county's lodging industry showed up at the first public hearing Feb. 9 on a proposed increase in the county's transient lodging tax.
   The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners intends to ask voters to approve a 3-percent increase in the tax -- from 6 percent to 9 percent -- in the May 17 election.
   Scott West, executive director of the Oregon Lodging Association, said he had been contacted by the owner of a lodge at Camp Sherman, who had questions about the potential use of the funds.
   West said he wanted to make sure that money taken in by the county is used to benefit the hospitality industry.
   "Almost 100 percent of the money has been used to enhance recreation," said Commissioner Walt Ponsford. "We want to enhance what Jefferson County has to offer and right now, there are no funds to do that."
   According to West, his organization's studies show that for every 2 percent the tax increases, there is a 5 percent reduction in other spending by tourists.
   The tax is paid by visitors to the county's hotels, motels, recreational vehicle parks, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, and houseboats.
   Commissioner Bill Bellamy said he disagreed with West's premise that an increase in the tax would decrease other spending. "We've used this money in the county for the most part to promote tourism," he said.
   Like Bend, Redmond and Sisters, the city of Madras already has a 9 percent lodging tax, but taxes collected on lodging within Madras are turned over to the city. The county keeps only those taxes collected outside the city limits.
   The state of Oregon also added a 1 percent transient lodging tax last year, to help fund the Oregon Tourism Commission, and specified that taxes collected by cities and counties be used primarily for economic development.
   From the $157,000 the county expects to take in for the current fiscal year, $50,000 will go to the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce; $10,000 to the Metolius Recreation Association (in Camp Sherman); $7,500 to the Crooked River Ranch Chamber of Commerce; $65,000 to the Jefferson County Fair; $22,500 to the fair capital improvement fund; and $2,000 to economic development.
   In a letter sent out to county collectors, Bellamy proposed using half the additional funds for the organizations that are currently receiving funds, and setting aside the other half to be used "for grants for community facilities that promote community activities and/or tourism."
   "If the money goes to a chamber, there's good benefit to it," said Gary Popp, who owns Lake Billy Chinook Houseboats and came to the meeting with concerns about the increase.
    "To me, how you're using the money is wise," he continued. "If it was me and I was collecting that kind of money, I'd use it to promote the county -- not specifically to promote the fairgrounds," he said, suggesting an advertising campaign for the county.
   Lottie Holcomb, fairgrounds manager, invited people to stop at the fairgrounds to see all the other activities that happen there throughout the year. "I think we're a big promoter of tourism in the county," she said.
   Elaine Henderson, retired county clerk, said that lodging taxes in other states and Canada are as high as the rate proposed by the county.
   "I encourage you to put it on the ballot," she said.
   The commission will decide Feb. 23 whether to put the increase on the May 17 ballot.