VITAL POLICY – OPINION Jefferson County’s “Tourist Punishment Tax” – a Double-Edged Sword that Must be Wielded Wisely

On any given day, the Jefferson County Tourism Office does a great job of attracting tourism business to Jefferson County, as well as the tax revenue that comes with it. Restaurants, markets, grocery stores, caterers, event venues, photographers, and many other businesses derive benefit. Tourists by the thousands sail in, spend their money, and sail away. We do not spend money educating their children or housing them in jail.

Seven months out of the year, hotels are full, the lakes are buzzing with watercraft, and visitors enjoy the natural beauty that is Jefferson County. Events and live music add to the experience for residents and tourists alike. Tourists are spending money; and it is not by accident. It is by design. In fact, our county tourism office works so well that local cities contribute about $50,000 of its $330,000 annual operating budget.

Over the past decade, Jefferson County has become a destination for profitable events that financially benefit all local taxpayers and support hundreds of jobs and small businesses.

Private investors also contribute indirectly to the tourism effort by donating to certain events, while Jefferson County contributes $280,000 annually from funds generated by the Hotel Motel Tax, a 4% fee that travelers pay on top of their overnight charges at hotels. I facetiously call it a “tourist punishment tax”. If Jefferson County is going to charge travelers with such an oppressive tax, the revenue must be used wisely.

After one year of operation, the county tourism office is wildly successful because of the efforts of Lauren Hurdle, Jefferson County Tourism Coordinator. The office is subject to open records like any other county government department, reflecting the type of accountability standards that many other communities across the nation use for tourism and business development. Transparency promotes trust.

The “tourist punishment tax” was levied on April 17, 1995, by Jefferson County Commission for the purpose of promoting “tourism” and “industrial recruitment”. From that date until June 30th, 2021, appropriations from the tax have been exceedingly difficult to account for, mainly because the county commission historically awarded those tax proceeds to the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, which is profoundly averse to open records and financial transparency. It is anyone’s guess how the chamber used millions of public tax dollars over the decades.

The approved 2021-2022 Fiscal Year County Budget properly withdrew all public funding from the Chamber of Commerce. From this, an opportunity has now emerged for Jefferson County.

The opportunity is to establish a county Office of Business Development to complement the office of tourism, essentially capitalizing on Hurdle’s success. This office could provide maximum flexibility for support of existing business, new business recruitment, retail, contracting, entrepreneurship, workforce development, tourism, and service businesses, all within a framework of trust and transparency. This will cost the local taxpayers nothing, and only serve to benefit all of Jefferson County.

Source: David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.