The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday approved a 1 percent lodging tax to help pay for jail operations, despite concerted opposition from the lodging and tourism industries.
The new tax, which will take effect in January, will generate an estimated $1.4 million annually in revenue for the county and cities. By state law, 70 percent must be spent on tourism promotion, while 30 percent — an estimated $420,000 — can be used for jail operations. The county already imposes a 9.5 percent lodging tax in unincorporated areas, in addition to state and city taxes. The new tax will apply within and outside city limits.
The tax comes in advance of a $20 million bond measure in November to move the Clatsop County Jail from Astoria to the former North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton.
The vote to impose the tax was 3-1. Scott Lee, the commission chairman, and Commissioners Sarah Nebeker and Lisa Clement voted yes, while Commissioner Lianne Thompson was the lone “no” vote. Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan, who works for the Cannery Pier Hotel, recused herself.
Sheriff Tom Bergin has argued that the tax is justified because an estimated 27 percent of jail inmates come from outside the county. During testimony Wednesday, he referenced several high-profile crimes that have involved hotel guests.
“I’ve taken multiple meth labs out of hotels in Gearhart, Seaside, Cannon Beach and Astoria,” he said.
Bergin argued that the tax is necessary regardless of whether the jail bond passes, because the county has a need to rent jail beds. He estimated between $800,000 and $1 million a year to rent 30 additional jail beds.
The sheriff thinks the lodging tax is a good option to augment the budget.
“Minimally, this is not affecting their bottom line,” Bergin said of the lodging industry. “I’ve talked to some other individuals who are more on board, and they’re more concerned about how that money is going to be transferred to the cities. That’s not really my fight.”
Lodging and tourism leaders, filling much of the meeting room at the Judge Guy Boyington Building on Wednesday, vociferously disagreed with Bergin, arguing the tax would dampen revenue and unfairly targets a single industry that doesn’t capture all visitors. They called on the county to hold off on the tax until after the November bond measure and continue a dialogue with the lodging industry about alternatives.
David Reid, director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, said tourism is a $500 million industry in Clatsop County and cautioned against vilifying guests.
“You cannot simply take $1.4 million from guests and expect them to book quite as many hotel rooms, spend quite as much money on meals, visit quite as many attractions and have as much money left to spend at retailers,” he said. “Their money can only stretch so far.”
Jason Brandt, CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said lodging taxes suppress the ability to attract tourists. He called it irresponsible for the county to pass a lodging tax meant to support tourism without any industry support.
The lodging association sued Bend over the city’s use of tourism tax money for road repairs. A judge sided with the association, but the city has appealed the decision.
Loretta Maxwell, owner of the Grandview Bed & Breakfast, questioned how many of the out-of-town jail inmates referenced by Bergin stay in rented rooms, calling for an analysis.
“I think that you’re flogging a dead horse,” Maxwell said of taxes on the lodging industry. “Our percentages are getting close to the big cities like Los Angeles and New York, and we’re not them.”
The argument of waiting until after the November vote on the jail bond was compelling to Thompson, who said the county should continue the conversation about alternatives and look at taxing other segments of the tourism industry, such as food and beverages, in order to capture the impact of visitors not renting rooms.
County Manager Cameron Moore said the commission could reconsider after the vote because the tax will not take effect until January.
“It gives you the option to rethink this if the jail bond is unsuccessful,” he said.