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Tourism officials ask Langley for rush on new tax

"How much do overnight guests pay?To get an idea of how much money a joint tourism promotions board could raise off a new 2 percent lodging tax, one only need look at this year’s current 2 percent collections. Here is a breakdown:Unincorporated Island County:$65,384Coupeville:$11,989Langley: $37,833Oak Harbor: $66,888Total: $182,094An abbreviated schedule to levy a new lodging tax in Langley combined with several sharp-edged comments from local tourism officials may have set the city’s elected officials against an ambitious plan for Island County tourism marketing.Wednesday night, representatives from the Island County Economic Development Council and the Island Bed and Breakfast Association asked the Langley City Council to institute an additional 1 percent tax on overnight lodging, and to sign the revenues away to a joint tourism promotion organization. The tax in Langley is presently 3 percent.By 2002, the Island County Joint Administration Board would take in approximately $180,000 from a 2 percent lodging tax on all lodging businesses in Langley, Coupeville, Oak Harbor, and unincorporated Island County. However, to get all this done, Langley would have to levy the tax and enter into an interlocal agreement with the county and the other cities by its Dec. 1 meeting -- something that would require emergency procedures.EDC Director Tom Shaughnessy said the new pool of money would fund promotion campaigns designed to bring tourists to destinations throughout the county. He said Langley is an important part of the local tourism picture, but noted that the city’s current scattered efforts at promotion are inefficient.The interlocal agreement designed to bind the cities and the county together in the promotion effort is essential if the county is to boost its tourism industry, he said.“The EDC would very much appreciate it if the city of Langley would go hand in hand with the other entities,” said Shaughnessy, a former county commissioner. He lost a re-election bid to Bill Thorn in 1998.Though he could not attend the meeting, Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton backed his one-time colleague with comments made earlier in the day. He said using the lodging tax as a funding vehicle is the fairest way to spread the cost of tourism promotion among lodge owners and municipalities. “We need to do this thing together, or perhaps not at all,” Shelton said.But some of the lodge proprietors at the council meeting did not agree that a new tax and a joint tourism promotion organization would do their businesses much good. Inn at Langley manager Sandy Nogal said Southend inn owners would wind up paying a disproportionate amount for a marketing program. Her business alone paid $31,337 out of the approximately $55,000 in lodging tax revenues Langley collected in 1998. Tourism promotion for the county does not bring much business to her inn, Nogal said, as its clients come to the inn because it is a destination on its own. A joint tourism campaign might benefit some businesses, but not her inn, she said, nor many of the others on the Southend.“I’m not targeting the same people who are staying in Oak Harbor,” Nogal said.Countering Nogal’s complaint that her business is paying more than its fair share, Bed and Breakfast Association president Bob Whitlow reminded her that the taxes are paid by guests, not innkeepers.“This will not come out of any owner’s pocket. It will paid by their guests,” Whitlow said.What sorts of fruit a joint tourism promotion effort would bear is still unknown. None of the proponents of the tax and interlocal agreement offered concrete ideas about how the money would be used. Rita Kuller, a Coupeville business owner and author of the most recent county-wide promotional brochure paid for with county lodging tax funds, did say that whatever the joint board does, it will be a better effort than her brochure.It has to be, she said, if county lodge owners and business people want tourists to spend their money here.“I don’t want them to come here with a cheese sandwich in a baggie and to eat it in one of our free parks,” Culler said.She also made it clear she has no sympathy for Inn at Langley owner Paul Schell because he pays more taxes than other inn owners. She said as mayor of Seattle, where the lodging tax is pegged at 7 percent, he should understand why Island County needs the same kind of revenue.Several people did speak up about how the money should be administered. Langley Chamber of Commerce manager Loretta Martin joined Sandy Nogal in asking for better representation on the joint board. As it is laid out in the draft interlocal agreement, the majority of the board would come from Coupeville and Oak Harbor. Based on the amount of money Southend businesses would pay in, Martin said Southenders should have more representatives. So did Nogal.“I think if there were 10 seats, we should get about eight.”Perhaps more than the testimony of local innkeepers, it may be the slightly ugly side of the meeting that could keep Langley from enacting the tax. Already agitated by the fact that he received a new draft of the interlocal agreement just before the meeting, Councilmember Neil Colburn took issue with Shaughnessy and Kuller after they -- in his opinion -- insulted the city’s commitment to tourism and its lodge owners with their comments.“I can tell you that by insulting us, it’s not going to work,” Colburn said.City attorney Eric Lucas had objections of his own. In order to avoid the fallout of Initiative 695, the cities and county must pass lodging tax increases of 1 and 2 percent before Jan. 1, 2000. Lucas said he could not recommend doing that, nor signing an interlocal agreement without study and possible revisions.“To do something like this on a hot issue, it’s not advisable,” Lucas said.The council will discuss the issue at its Dec. 1 meeting. The Island County Board of Commissioners also has the tax and interlocal agreement on its agenda for Dec. 6. A public hearing on the issue is to be held at that meeting."

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