To the Valley News:
Thank you for the recent article by Shaun Kittle, “Essex County Board votes to table bed tax” (Dec. 6 online), which was right on the mark. I am writing to express opposition to the proposed increase, which would raise the Essex County Occupancy Tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. The increase will hurt the smaller lodging businesses and ultimately may prove to be counterproductive.
As an opponent of the original bed tax, I’ll be the first to admit that it has done a lot of good for the county, generating millions of dollars for tourism marketing that never could have been justified as a tax on county residents. In fact, for at least the first year of the bed tax, ample funds were available for use by tourism groups within the county, which was a good thing. However, a subsequent change in the spending formula has made it difficult for such groups to access bed tax funds, as several Supervisors made clear at a public meeting on December 4th.
In other words, there is no way for tourism groups throughout the county to directly access bed tax funds that some of their members—those small lodging properties that make up the backbone of our local tourism industry—faithfully collect for the county.
Although the county’s visitors bureau has a done a wonderful job of promoting Lake Placid—the crown jewel of Adirondack destinations—as well as the region as a whole, small lodging businesses in towns outside of North Elba have not benefited all that much from the county’s marketing plans. So to ask these businesses to hit up their customers for another 2 percent — bringing the total tax that lodgers will pay for the privilege of staying in Essex County (including sales tax) to nearly 13 percent — seems unjust.
There is a perception by some that the bed tax is a painless fee assessed on faceless visitors from outside our county. But to those of us with B&B’s, inns, and motels, these people are not just customers, they are guests—many of whom return to our places again and again. And our guests get absolutely nothing for the dollars they shell out for the bed tax.
The difficult economy that we all face has been especially tough on working class and lower-to-moderate middle class folks—the kind of people who stay at smaller lodging properties. People don’t have the disposable income they had 15 years ago, and many already have to think twice before committing to a weekend getaway. Raising the bed tax on these folks will only make that decision tougher. Occupancy rates will drop as a result, and some lodging businesses may close. The bed tax on empty or closed rooms, remember, is 0 percent.
Essex County no doubt faces a daunting fiscal situation. If the bed tax must be raised, how about raising it on rooms at the high end—say, $150 and up. Folks who can pay that much for a night’s rest probably won’t lose a wink of sleep paying an extra 2 percent. The additional funds raised could then be directed to the county’s 18 towns, and tourism groups within those towns, to build up our tourism “infrastructure”—creating programs and amenities that will give visitors lots more reasons to come back to Essex County.
By creating a two-tiered tax structure, much like what is being contemplated nationally, the county can level the playing field for lodging businesses. Only this time, everyone will benefit.
Fred Balzac, Jay