The Essex County Board of Supervisors
The Essex County Board of Supervisors has decided to place on hold a move to increase the county occupancy tax from 3 to 5 percent.
The group tabled a resolution Dec. 3 by a vote of 15-1 to increase the occupancy tax — also known as a bed tax — with only Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava voting against the table.
The tax increase would require the approval of home-rule authority from the state Legislature and the adoption of a local law by Essex County.
If enacted, the additional tax is expected to reign in $1.2 million dollars for the county, according to County Treasurer Mike Diskin.
The additional revenue will be broken down as follows: 25 percent toward the operation and management of the fish hatchery, 25 percent to be deposited into a Tourism Product Development Fund, 4 percent to be used for visitor transportation and 46 percent will go toward winter and shoulder season marketing programs.
“The way I see this is it buys us some flexibility with our tourism dollars and that’s an important thing right now, especially when so many parts of our fiscal picture are not flexible,” said Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey.
Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston, who pushed for the 2 percent increase, echoed that it would be good for the county.
“Even though I know there’s people out there that think this is not a good thing and it’s going to hurt business, I’m sorry, but there’s a number of hotels in my town and I can’t see that an extra 2 percent on a room is going to turn anyone away,” Preston said.
Not everyone thinks the tax is a good idea.
Fred Balzac, owner of Book and Blanket Bed and Breakfast in Jay, spoke at the meeting and encouraged the supervisors to table the increased bed tax for a month and take that time to meet with lodging owners and consider other options.
“This economy has not been very good for the small lodging properties,” Balzac said. “We have to work very hard at filling rooms, and I think what we’re finding is that people on the lower end are having to really think hard about spending the money. Two percent is just going to add to the cost.”
Balzac asked the board to consider only raising the bed tax on those rooms priced at $150 or more per night.
Also hotly debated was the $2.8 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for repairs made in the aftermath of tropical storm Irene and the 2011 spring floods.
Scozzafava put a resolution in front of the board, which passed, to use the money to help lower the tax levy.
Essex County Manager Daniel Palmer explained that the county has an obligation to repay the fund balance money once it is returned from FEMA.
“We set up a capital project to cover the FEMA cost,” Palmer said. “We transferred money from our existing fund balance into the capital project, which became the funding for the capital project. That money has been spent, and it has not been returned, but when it does, it will be used to repay the fund balance that we took out.”
Palmer has spoken against using an excess in fund balance money to balance the budget.
With the resolution passed, the FEMA money has been folded into the current budget proposal, in addition to about $4.5 million more in fund balance.
The board also passed a resolution to institute a county-wide hiring freeze
Other resolutions passed will lower department head raises to 2 percent and elected officials, with the exception of the board of supervisors, who voted against giving themselves a raise, will remain at a 3 percent salary increase.
The county board also passed a resolution to reject $52,273 in funding increase requests to contract agencies and to decrease the Social Services budget by $33,681 and the Department of Public Works budget by $149,000.
New County Coroner Francis Whitelaw was also sworn in.