Around 40 business owners, residents and tourism representatives provided feedback on Lake County's proposed 4% lodging tax during a county board meeting Thursday, Nov. 14.
Since March, a committee consisting of county commissioners, the administrator and auditor as well as representatives of the tourism industry have been meeting to discuss the possible implementation of a countywide lodging tax.
Funds garnered from the proposed tax would be dedicated in two ways: 3% would go to funding countywide marketing campaigns, while 1% would go back directly to the communities to fund festivals and events.
An additional 1% would likely be added in Two Harbors, as the city currently has a lodging tax of 3% — 2% dedicated to marketing and 1% dedicated to supporting the Edna G. tugboat.
As municipalities such as Silver Bay, Two Harbors and Fall Lake Township currently have 3% lodging taxes implemented, County Administrator Matt Huddleston said the county would work with each entity to rescind the local lodging taxes and implement the countywide tax.
"Our goal is not to increase the tax on top of theirs," Huddleston said. "The purpose is to strengthen the ability to promote Lake County as a destination, improving tourism, local business and the vitality of the county."
The county would contract with a tourism bureau with a two- or three-year contract to implement marketing plans with the tax funds. The county would approve the budget for the tourism bureau annually and it would have an operating board with representatives from around the county.
The tourism board would likely meet quarterly around the county with meetings open to the public. The county is looking at contracting with the nonprofit "Lovin' Lake County."
Janelle Jones of Lovin' Lake County emphasized the nonprofit is separate from the Lake County Chamber of Commerce, of which she is the president and CEO, and separate boards would oversee each organization.
Commissioner Pete Walsh said the tax would be implemented equally on the hotels, motels and short-term vacation rental entities such as VRBO and AirBnB properties as well as campgrounds.
Back in May, the county received legislative authorization to implement the 4% lodging tax. However the county board has not yet approved an ordinance to adopt the new tax and held the public meeting in Two Harbors to hear constituents' concerns.
One of residents' primary concerns regarded the amount of the tax. Resident Jim Hagen questioned why the board pursued a 4% tax instead of a 2%-3% tax.
"You can always say, 'What’s the most money we can get? Let’s get it and figure out what to do with it.' I feel more comfortable with the approach of, 'How much money do we need to accomplish what our objective is?'" Hagen said.
Commissioner Rick Goutermont pointed out that both surrounding counties, St. Louis and Cook, implemented 3% sales taxes, as did Two Harbors and Silver Bay.
"So 3% seems to be the number in the area," Goutermont said. "But then, there's this opportunity to support events in the shoulder seasons here with that 1% more."
Speaking of supporting events, Bay Days organizer Faron Meeks made the point that he's always looking for more funds to support Silver Bay's annual event.
"I’m not totally for or against this, as it seems like there's still a lot of work to be done," Meeks said. "But if there’s a portion used towards events like Bay Days and Heritage Days, then it would be a huge factor. It would allow us to compete with events that spend $20,000-$30,000 in advertising and allow us to grow these events."
Also from the Silver Bay area, Lisa Hoff of the Silver Bay Area Tourism Association board said she is worried about the way the funds would be administered.
"We understand, as a whole, we could make a big difference by putting money in a pot and doing a big campaign for the county, but some of it needs to be put back of owners, residents and communities to make a difference as well," Hoff said.
Goutermont addressed concerns about the return of funds to the communities.
"I don't see it as being a map with clear boundaries, saying money came from here and now it equally, to the penny, has to go back to here," Goutermont said. "It's more about coming to the tourism board with ideas. And if someone has a fabulous idea, everyone supports and more money goes in that direction. Then next year it goes in another direction.
"The important thing is that everyone is included in the discussion and will see the benefits over the years."
The county board is expected to travel to Fall Lake Township to meet with the public on this issue at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. The board has also tentatively scheduled an additional public meeting Dec. 12 at the Beaver Bay Community Center.