Island County Lodging Tax committee rules become more transparent

The county’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, a volunteer group charged with recommending who gets hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in tax dollars, will face new restrictions and procedures in this year’s deliberations. Those seeking the money, including chambers of commerce, foundations and arts organizations, will also be affected by the changes.

The process is going to be more transparent and predictable,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said. “There will be a more level playing field for the applicants.”

Johnson is the non-voting chairwoman of the committee, which has six other members. Three are from among the businesses subject to the tax and three from among those seeking tax revenues.

The changes fall into three areas, said Rex Porter, a professional grant-compliance advisor who advised the county at no charge.

• The scoring criteria have been edited so they reflect state law more accurately and are more similar to criteria used in nearby counties. The committee, usually called LTAC, may use only those criteria in making its recommendations to the Board of Island County Commissioners.

• Organization members must comply with a conflict-of-interest policy that, among other thing, precludes advocating for or against an application if the member has an interest in it.

• Members may not edit proposals, and applicants will be given either all the money they seek or none of it, not an amount decided upon by the committee. Recommendations are due by Oct. 1.

New processes make it clear that the committee’s role is only to recommend recipients and the amounts they should receive. The board makes the final decisions on who gets what, and it need seek no further input from the committee once it gets the recommendations. It must make its final decisions by Dec. 1.

A meeting to discuss these changes is scheduled for 3:30-5 p.m. Wednesday, May 4 in the Commissioners’ Hearing Room, B102, 1 NE Sixth Street in Coupeville.

Island County imposes a 4 percent tax on lodging, with 2 percent going to tourism facilities and events and 2 percent to promotion of tourism. The 2 percent apportioned by the advisory committee is the part dealing with tourism facilities and events — “increasing heads in beds,” said Pam Dill, the county’s staff liaison to the organization. A separate committee, the Joint Administration Board, deals with apportioning the other 2 percent, Dill said.

Last year, the advisory committee divvied up $223,525 to be spent in 2016. This year’s pot, to be spent in 2017, hasn’t been totaled yet, Dill said.

The county is still awaiting an opinion from the state’s attorney general on whether the board can lawfully change award amounts recommended by the organization, Dill said. Meanwhile, “our Prosecuting Attorney says it’s OK,” she said.

The board of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce in December voted to decline a $25,000 award from the board, saying accepting it would pose “significant risk to the chamber if this taxpayer-funded award is challenged and then deemed invalid.” That award followed the advisory committee recommending the chamber get $31,000 for its visitors center and $2,581 toward an ice-skating event.

The board requested that the advisory committee cut the amount, but the committee declined. The Prosecutor’s Office advised the board it could change the amount, so it offered the chamber $25,000.