MALONE - Franklin County's Bed Tax Committee is in a bit of a Catch-22.
At hearings earlier this month, many people said they aren't in favor of instituting a bed tax in the county. The main reason was that they don't feel like the county tourism department does enough for them now.
Legislators are aware that the county's work on tourism has been lacking in recent years, but that's why they want to institute the bed tax, which would add a charge to any hotel, motel or other lodging stays less than 30 days.
Lake Clear Lodge owner Ernest Hohmeyer, left, argues a point at a Franklin County Bed Tax Committee meeting Monday morning in Malone as other committee members listen. They are, from left, Don Dew Jr., county board Chairman David “Billy” Jones and Holiday Inn Express co-owner Chris LaBarge.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
At a committee meeting Monday, Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, said the county can't afford to invest property tax money in tourism.
"We pretty much created a bare-bones county tourism department right now, because we can't afford it," Burpoe said. "We have to stay within the 2 percent tax cap, or else we have to explain why. So we are cutting everywhere we can."
Burpoe said the goal of the bed tax is to bring in money that will be dedicated to promoting the area to potential tourists, which will allow the county to start doing more to help people like hotel and motel owners in Tupper Lake more than it has in the past. The tax is projected to bring in around $350,000 if it can get approved.
Burpoe noted that the tourism advertising campaigns the county does participate in run outside the area, to encourage people to come here, so local business owners might not be fully aware of what the county currently does for them.
Tupper Laker Maggie Ernenwein said during the hearing in Tupper Lake in early January that she's never had anyone click through to her website from the county's tourism websites, but Burpoe said Monday that's the kind of thing the county can focus more on once it has money to do so.
Don Dew Jr., Tupper Lake's representative on the Bed Tax Committee, said the frustration with the county has been building over a number of years.
"It's not a new issue in Tupper Lake," Dew said.
He said he's excited by the idea of wiping the slate clean and getting a fresh start, though.
"Let's start new," Dew said. "This is a way to do it."
At its meeting Monday morning, the committee talked over the three hearings it had: in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Malone. About 10 lodging owners in Tupper Lake gave legislators and committee members an angry earful, and there was some criticism in Saranac Lake and Malone as well, though there were supporters in Malone, and only two people with comments showed up in Saranac Lake.
Committee members said they were surprised when they heard people say they hadn't heard about the proposed tax until shortly before or after the hearings. County board Chairman David "Billy" Jones, D-Chateaugay, said the issue has been in the local newspapers once a week for the last year-and-a-half to two years.
Jones said he doesn't think people understand what the county wants to do with the tax.
"It's not to put a tax on our local residents," Jones said; it's to get money from the people visiting from out of the area.
He also noted that the money won't go to the county's general fund but instead put in a separate fund for tourism marketing. The money would be spent based on a marketing strategy put together by a Tourism Advisory Committee, which would be made up of business people who are in industries impacted by tourism, like restaurants, attractions and lodging.
"I think people want to know that the county is not going to suck this into the black hole," said Lesley Lyon, the county's Department of Social Services commissioner and a bed and breakfast owner in Lake Clear.
Committee members voted Monday to change a few things in the tax based on what they heard at the hearings. They also voted to keep some things that people at the hearings questioned.
The majority of committee members voted to keep the tax at the proposed 5 percent, though there was one vote to change it to 3 percent, which is what Essex County has now, and one to change it to 4. Ernest Hohmeyer of Lake Clear advocated for 3 percent, saying that it would be easier to get the county's lodging owners on board if the number were smaller.
"I just think it's a little bit easier to swallow," Hohmeyer said.
They also voted to keep vacation rentals in the law but to exclude people who rent out their primary residence for a few weeks a year, since most of those people do so to help pay their property tax. Curtis Reynolds told legislators at the Saranac Lake hearing that he does that and hopes the law won't apply to him.
The committee voted to exclude campgrounds from the bed tax, since, as Gil Paddock put it at the Malone hearing, the people who camp at his Deer River Campsite in Duane are bringing their beds with them. Legislator Sue Robideau, R-Brushton, said the tax is supposed to be on people from outside the county visiting here, but many county residents go camping within the county, since they can't afford to vacation elsewhere.
If a campsite has cabins that it rents out as well, the tax would apply to those, committee members noted.
They also decided to add resorts to the list of lodgings being taxed, after Jacob Kipping, assistant general manager of The Point resort on Upper Saranac Lake, asked at the Malone hearing whether the tax would apply to his business.
Kipping also noted that The Point includes in its fees a number of services besides room rental, and he asked whether those would be taxed or if it would be just the room. The committee decided Monday that if a business can separate out those other service fees, the tax will only apply to the room charge.
Committee members were at odds Monday over whether now is the time for consensus building. Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed not to sign any new taxes into law this year, some committee members want to get the law to Albany so the county can start lobbying on behalf of it as soon as possible. Chris LaBarge, who runs Malone's Holiday Inn Express, noted that the committee has been working on it for six months already, and now is the time for action.
But others argued that it might make sense to put the law on hold, get the Tourism Advisory Committee started and have that group work with lodging owners and other interested parties around the county to put together a marketing strategy. That would help people understand what the plan is for the money, which might encourage people to get on board with collecting the tax, Hohmeyer and Lyon argued.
LaBarge said he'd rather get it to a vote first, and then if county legislators don't pass it, they'll know they have to go back and put together the marketing strategy first.
"You guys are going to have to vote on something at some point," LaBarge said.
Robideau noted that Legislator Paul Maroun, who is also the Tupper Lake village mayor, told his constituents at the Tupper Lake hearing that he would vote against the tax if they continue to object to it.
Bruce Monette said there are seven legislators, so the law only needs four of them to support it to pass.
"That's one no vote," Monette said.
Committee members decided to make the revisions to the law, circulate it as widely as possible using the local chambers of commerce to help, then hold informal meetings with stakeholders in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Malone, hopefully by mid February. After that, they plan to meet again and decide how to move forward.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.