Some awfully good people disagree about what’s best for Bend tourism. A group of hotel owners, tourism officials and business owners supports increasing Bend’s lodging tax by 2 percentage points from 9 to 11 percent. There’s another group — made up of an equally diverse coalition — that worries the tax increase may do more harm than good.
What should the Bend City Council do? Slow down.
The council is scheduled to discuss today if it should put the proposal on the November ballot. Before councilors consider voting yes, they should have decided two things. They should decide if there has been enough refinement and discussion of the proposal. They should decide that it is good for Bend.
Stakeholders met Monday night to discuss the issue as councilors listened. Just about the only thing the stakeholders agreed on is an end. No means. They want more “heads in beds” to help Bend’s tourism economy, especially in the leaner winter season. We also heard no disagreement about how much the tax on lodging would raise, a projected $850,000. The proposal has $600,000 of that going to tourism — particularly targeted toward bringing in more tourists from Seattle and Northern California during the off-peak season. The other $250,000 would go to public safety, the city’s budget for police and fire protection.
It’s important to be clear that this is a tax that primarily tourists pay, which may make it a slam dunk at the ballot box. It’s a tax to be paid when somebody stays at a hotel in Bend or at a vacation rental. The council also can’t raise this tax on its own. The city charter requires a vote of the people.
The problem for everyone is that nobody knows what the increase in the tax will do. Generally, if you tax something more, people will buy less of it. But will a 2 percentage point increase — only a couple of dollars on a $100 room — hurt business? Will spending $600,000 more on tourism offset that? Will the tax disproportionately hurt lower-priced lodging in Bend?
Doug La Placa of the tourism group Visit Bend believes his group can successfully boost tourism with the money. Noelle Fredland, the marketing director for the Old Mill District, shares that confidence. Wayne Purcell, one of the owners of The Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center, believes the increase in price will hurt his business. Dave Rathbun, Mt. Bachelor’s president, is concerned that he doesn’t know what the increase will do.
The tax increase is on the council’s agenda tonight because of a timing issue with the November election. If the council waits, it may be too late to jump through all the hoops to get it on the ballot and allow for a decent campaign. Waiting could mean missing an opportunity for the tax increase to help boost tourism this winter.
With so much uncertainty, what is the hurry? If councilors are unsure if the increase is a good idea or sure that more collaboration will develop a better compromise, it doesn’t make any sense to rush to get it on the ballot.