Officials cool on motel tax hike

First Posted: 1/15/2009

RALEIGH - Local legislators say county commissioners can forget about a proposal to increase the local motel/hotel occupancy tax to raise money to help pay for a horse arena in Robeson County - at least for now.
The Robeson County Board of Commissioners voted last week to ask the General Assembly to help the county establish the horse arena at the Southeastern Regional Agricultural Center/Farmers Market site. The horse arena is expected to cost about $18 million. County Manager Ken Windley has proposed a 3 percent local room occupancy tax to raise about a third of the arena's cost.
Rep. Ronnie Sutton of Pembroke said the request to increase the tax will find little support during the General Assembly's short session.
“I don't see that happening this year. Raising the motel tax is a dead issue,” Sutton said. “It may not be impossible, but it is pretty close. There is a whole block of people up here that is not going to vote for any kind of tax increase, and that block seems to be growing.”
Sutton said the county would benefit from the horse arena, but the county commissioners need to look at other alternatives to pay for it. He said one option would be using a combination of federal, state and local money.
Windley proposed asking the state to turn over ownership of the Southeastern Regional Agricultural Center/Farmers Market to Robeson County in an effort to attract federal money to build a horse arena. Windley said the county would ask the state to provide money over the first three years - 75 percent of the operation cost the first year, 50 percent the second year and 25 percent the third year.
“Under a plan like that, the state would probably donate the arena to the county,” Sutton said. “That would be more feasible than raising motel taxes.”
Sen. David Weinstein of Lumberton said, before the county requests a motel tax, it needs to contact the Department of Agriculture about releasing the land for the arena and securing a federal grant to help pay for the project. He added that he would like to see more support for the proposal among county motel and hotel operators. The Lumberton Tourism Development Authority is opposed to raising the tax.
“Those conditions should be met, then maybe the county can consider a tax if the motel people can be brought on board,” Weinstein said. “But as it stands now, there is very little support in the House for that.”
Commissioner Noah Woods got the bad news from legislators Wednesday during a meeting of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners in Raleigh. Woods serves as president of the state association.
“It's a tough situation up there in Raleigh,” Woods said. “Our people are supportive, but like Rep. Sutton told me … the General Assembly is adamantly opposed to taxes. I don't care who it is proposing it. They just won't support it.”
County Commissioner Gary Powers, who along with Commissioner Bill Herndon, voted against a proposal for the commissioners to ask the state for help with the project, said it is just as well that the issue is tabled for the time being.
Powers said the state needs to conduct an in-depth study of the benefits of a horse arena first.
“I'm not opposed to a horse arena, but I think the General Assembly should come up with a plan that I can use to sell it not only to the hotels, but to the general public. I want them to show me step-by-step how this venture will work.”
Powers said he is not sure the tax will generate enough money to pay for the arena.
“I, too, believe the horse arena will be a boost to the economy,” Powers said. “But before we go out on a limb, I want to be sure we can pay for it.”

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