Wallowa County Commissioners Susan Roberts and Paul Castilleja have expressed their concerns about the process used to move the idea of an expanded Transient Lodging Tax to a vote.
The controversial tax bump idea first suggested by Commissioner Todd Nash in March was put to a Commission vote June 26 at special meeting at Cloverleaf Hall in Enterprise. The proposal is to collect an additional three percent transient lodging tax from unincorporated areas and split it 70/30 between the county fair grounds and the sheriff’s department.
Commissioners Roberts and Castilleja made their comments a week later during the public comment portion of the July 2 Wallowa County Commissioners meeting.
In response to questions put forward by Doug Buska, former owner of Wallowa Lake Resort and volunteer at the Wallowa County Fairgrounds, Castilleja said that the meeting at Cloverleaf Hall when the vote was taken had “given me great consideration as to whether we did it right.”
Roberts explained that her reason for voting “no” on the issue was that she believed there was a different process involving multiple public meetings that commissioners could have followed.
“My reason for not voting (yes) was simply that we had not gone through the process as I would have laid it out,” Roberts said. “I just think there was a process we could have done differently and that was to bring everybody together –– it may have come out the same in the end –– but at least to have all those voices be part of that.”
Buska, who said he has been attending the Wallowa County Fair Board meetings to understand the organization and its needs, asked the commissioners why they had not considered allocating a percentage of the proposed tax bump to lodging in unincorporated areas.
His request was in line with the stated intent of the tax to “equalize” the tax burden across the county. Incorporated cities within the county already assess an additional three percent tax and keep 100 percent of it for tourism promotion.
Buska explained that the Wallowa Lake Tourism Committee, a nonprofit, could easily be expanded and used as a mechanism to distribute the allocation to all unincorporated areas.
Buska asked if the commission would be willing to make a motion for a more equitable split or to at least consider it.
“At this time, no,” Commissioner Nash said. “We had a meeting, and we had a vote, and that’s the way it stands.”
Nash also said that he thought the businesses at the lake were “already the largest recipients of what is already 50 percent of the lodging tax that is currently received.”
The 50 percent benefiting the lake businesses is not received by the business directly, it includes the entire budget of the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce –– approximately $166,638 in 2017 –– which is approximately 50 percent of the $360,000 total the county receives.
Wallowa Lake Tram owner and chair of the Wallowa Lake Tourism Committee Mike Lockhart also pointed out that of that amount, only half, or $83,300, was used for tourism or business promotion. Less than 25 percent of the total tax collected was used for direct tourism promotion.
Buska also reminded the commission that all businesses that were members of the chamber benefited from chamber tourism development efforts, not just businesses at the lake.
Furthermore, Wallowa Lake Tourism Committee estimates that the businesses at the lake contribute more than half the $360,000 of transient lodging taxes currently collected by the county.
Nash replied that what he meant to say was that “Wallowa Lake has been recipient of more tourism tha the rest of the county. We’ve seen Wallowa Lake have a bigger boom than say, Troy, or anywhere else.”
Nash advised Buska that the next step toward the ballot was to name an advisory board to determine how to spend the expected 70 percent of new lodging money and invited the lake area businessmen to appoint someone to that board.