Business

Coupeville approves room tax hike

"According to the dozen-plus innkeepers and chamber reps who spoke at Monday night’s Coupeville Town Council Meeting, levying a new 2 percent lodging tax on Central Whidbey tourists could be just the thing to attract more tourists and their dollars to the island.And for the most part, Coupeville’s council members agreed, approving an ordinance to raise the tax, 4-1. Tourism is currently the second largest industry in Island County, generating $91 million in annual spending. The tax is part of an all-or-nothing campaign by island tourism boosters that, if approved, would pave the way for an interlocal agreement between Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Langley and Island County to use all the proceeds from the new tax to hire an off-island marketing firm to sell the charms of Whidbey and Island County.Proceeds could be considerable.Money from the tax hike, if approved, could total $175,000 a year and would be administered by an Island County Joint Administration Board.Coupeville’s approval of the tax increase last night makes it two down — two to go. Oak Harbor approved a 2 percent lodging tax increase last Tuesday.Langley and the Island County Commissioners have yet to vote on the tax.The idea for the 2 percent tax increase stems from a report compiled by Chandler and Brooks, an Olympia-based tourism and resort development and marketing firm, hired last year by the city of Oak Harbor to determine the best way to market Oak Harbor.Among other conclusions, the company’s report suggested that Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Langley and Island County pool lodging tax revenues for a professional, multi-year, marketing, advertising and public relations campaign.The report found that on average, a tourist spends $141 per day, but many tourists only stay one day in one part of Whidbey Island: Oak Harbor, Coupeville or Langley.Promoting a whole-island experience and the attractions in its cities could entice tourists to spread out their stay and dollars across the island and help fill empty rooms during Whidbey’s “shoulder season” — November through March. The increase will double the 2 percent lodging tax that already exists.In the 1960s, the Legislature created a 2 percent “stadium tax,” rebating sales taxes collected on overnight lodging facilities for the promotion and development of tourism.In 1997, the Legislature approved an increase which allows the tax to be increased to 4 percent. The additional 2 percent would be an add-on tax.Should Island County approve an additional 2 percent add-on lodging tax, Chandler and Brooks recommended using 100 percent of the proceeds for promoting tourism. “What excites me is that Whidbey Island can come together in a cause to generate tourism and prosperity,” said Tony Steadman, chairman of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.But not everyone who spoke was excited about the tax.Marion Sasso, owner of Coupeville’s Victorian Bed and Breakfast, said her guests already pay a 2 percent tax that is supposed to be used for marketing the island and that she is against tacking another tax onto their lodging bills.“These people are guests in my home,” Sasso said. “I don’t feel because people come into my house and take their pants off, that gives me the right to go through their pockets.”Sasso said she was also concerned that Whidbey’s hospitality industry had to bear the responsibility of imposing the tax when many other industries would reap the benefits of increased tourism.“Why dump it all on the accommodation industry?” Sasso asked after the meeting. “Other businesses like shops and realtors will benefit from this; why not spread the cost to them too? If it’s going to help everybody, then let everybody pay. It just seems like it’s tax, tax, and more tax all the time. If I’d had a couple of tea bags, I would have thrown them on the table.”Sasso’s concerns were noted.Before voting to approve the tax increase, Councilwoman Sandra Sherwin said she viewed the tax increase as one that would only benefit the island.The tax increase could even benefit pristine, natural areas like Ebey’s Prairie, bringing attention and appreciation to them, said Councilman Marshall Bronson, who also runs the Compass Rose Bed and Breakfast.The lone dissenting council vote came from Frank Tippets.“Good taxes provide for community necessities and other important benefits to life quality,” Tippets said. “This tax is soley to finance a marketing effort for tourism promotion and in comparison to what I think are good taxes. it leaves me less than enthusiastic.” Langley is scheduled to vote on the lodging tax increase within the next two weeks and the Island County Commissioners have set a vote on the ordinance on Dec. 13.County Commissioner Mike Shelton even if Langley votes against the ordinance, the commissioners will go ahead with the hearing.“We’ll still go ahead and hold our public hearing, but I think we need to do it all together or not at all,” Shelton said Tuesday. "

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