The Wilkes County commissioners are again talking about imposing an occupancy tax on places of lodging in the county.

At their Feb. 16 meeting, the commissioners agreed by consensus to decide at their next regular meeting on March 2 whether to schedule a public hearing for receiving public comment on establishing the tax.

Commissioner Keith Elmore raised the topic at the Feb. 16 meeting by suggesting having the public hearing at the next meeting. Elmore noted that the commissioners had discussed it several times before.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said having the public hearing at the March 16 meeting instead would allow more time for the public to learn about the matter.

Settle said more people could physically attend a public hearing on March 16 than March 2 since increased physical presence will be allowed at commissioner meetings as a result of COVID-19 case numbers dropping in Wilkes. He said the option of participating remotely would remain on March 16.

The commissioners agreed by consensus to put a vote on having a public hearing on the March 16 meeting agenda.

Commissioner David Gambill said he opposed imposing a county occupancy tax and would vote against holding the public hearing. “I get the occupancy tax, but I still think it’s bad timing to even talk about a tax with the pandemic and the year they’ve had,” explained Gambill.

County Attorney Tony Triplett told the commissioners there are two different kinds of public hearings on occupancy taxes.

“One is the formal public hearing the statutes call for before you can actually pass a resolution imposing an occupancy tax. I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about here. I think you’re talking about putting it on the agenda to set a general public hearing just to receive public input,” said Triplett.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” said Settle, indicating he was referring to the general public hearing for input rather than the hearing required before imposing an occupancy tax.

“That sounds good to me,” said Elmore.

Wilkes EDC President Nixon, in the audience, said that if the commissioners decided to establish an occupancy tax, they might need to request a “local bill” allowing this before the end of February to meet the deadline for introducing local bills in the current N.C. General Assembly session.

Settle and Triplett both said in response that legislation allowing the Wilkes commissioners to impose an occupancy tax had already been approved.

They were referring to a local bill allowing Wilkes County government to collect as much as a 3% tax on gross receipts from lodging provided by motels, rental cabins, Airbnbs and similar establishments in Wilkes, introduced at the request of the county commissioners and approved in 2010.

Elmore was among three of the five commissioners who voted in favor of tabling action on a countywide occupancy tax in 2010.

The bill passed for Wilkes requires establishment of a tourism development authority (TDA) board to oversee use of revenue generated by an occupancy tax if imposed. At least half of the members of the board must be from the tourism/hospitality industry.

The Town of Wilkesboro has been the only governmental jurisdiction in Wilkes with an occupancy tax since 2001. Its seven-member TDA board, appointed by the town council, determines how revenue from the town’s 3% occupancy tax is spent. The TDA board, with Thomas Salley as director, functions as a component unit of town government like the Wilkesboro ABC Board.

When the county commissioners discussed establishing a countywide occupancy tax in December 2016, Wilkes Planning Director Eddie Barnes said county government couldn’t implement the tax within municipalities without amended legislation allowing this. If this occurred, said Barnes, the county could collect a 3% occupancy tax in Wilkesboro and collect as much as 6% everywhere else in Wilkes by amending the local legislation.

When Elmore asked if county government would need the Town of Wilkesboro’s approval for collecting a 3% occupancy tax there, Barnes said not and Triplett agreed.

Barnes said then that Wilkesboro officials had discussed seeking amended legislation allowing the town to collect a 6% rather than 3% occupancy tax. He estimated annual revenue from a 6% occupancy tax in Wilkes, excluding anything from within the towns, at $60,000 to $80,000.

Wilkesboro’s occupancy tax generates over $150,000 a year.

Settle said in the December 2016 discussion that he supported taking a closer look at a countywide occupancy tax and that it would be inefficient to have both a county and Wilkesboro TDA spending occupancy tax revenue promoting Wilkes.

In April 2018, the Wilkesboro Town Council approved a resolution telling the Wilkesboro TDA board to spend occupancy tax revenue exclusively on promoting tourism in Wilkesboro. Town council members have spoken for spending more occupancy tax revenue on downtown capital improvements centering around the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons.

Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said during a Wilkes EDC meeting in 2018 that the Wilkesboro TDA has a certain pot of money to spend, “but there is a lot of money out there available to become a part of that pot that isn’t in it. So, we have to make decisions about who we spend on. We recognize that the assets are the entire county,” but also that only places of lodging in Wilkesboro fund the TDA.

Proponents of a countywide occupancy tax say growth of Airbnbs, rental cabins and campgrounds in Wilkes substantially increased potential revenue from a countywide occupancy tax. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were online listings for over 100 Airbnbs in Wilkes.

There are about 50 rental cabins in the Leatherwood development, a substantial number in the Buck Mountain subdivision in western Wilkes, several scattered rental units in northeastern Wilkes and elsewhere.

Wilkes EDC board member Dale Isom is outspoken in supporting a countywide occupancy tax, including at EDC board meetings. Isom is president of Wilkesboro-based Spectrum Hospitality Management LLC, which owns the Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn in Wilkesboro and other hotels elsewhere.

Isom stated in a recent letter published in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot that revenue available to help Wilkes draw visitors would be more than tripled if the county commissioners approved a countywide occupancy tax of 6% and the Town of Wilkesboro increased its tax to 6%.

Elmore said during an EDC board meeting that owners of Airbnbs and rental cabins in unincorporated areas of Wilkes should be involved in occupancy tax discussions to help them better understand how promotions funded by this revenue benefit them. He said their opposition to an occupancy tax is partly why it hasn’t been approved by the county commissioners.

The only places of lodging exempt from occupancy taxes where enacted are campgrounds on government land, temporary campgrounds like those open for MerleFest and those operated by tax exempt entities.

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