The doubling of a room occupancy tax from 3 to 6 percent, anticipated to assist in marketing and promotion efforts for Sampson County, will have to wait at least another month after a vote to table the matter Monday by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners.
A goal of the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) for years, an increase in the room occupancy tax must be authorized by the North Carolina General Assembly, which it was for Sampson in early August.
Sheila Barefoot, director of the Sampson County CVB, and others sought an increase in the local occupancy tax in order to fall in line with neighboring counties. She expressed her hope during the CVB Board’s meeting last month that the approval would be a formality, with the goal to have the 6 percent tax effective Oct. 1.
The possible effective date was changed to Nov. 1 in a resolution drafted for commissioners’ approval. However, that go-ahead was not given.
“Mrs. Barefoot has worked diligently on this and I think she and her board are doing a fabulous job of taking these funds and marketing the county,” said county board chairman Clark Wooten, opening discussion on the topic Monday night.
The tax hike was believed to be a foregone conclusion, as county officials shared their support for the occupancy tax increase last year and again at the beginning of this year, penning letters to Senator Brent Jackson and local N.C. Reps. Larry Bell and William Brisson. A resolution was adopted by the board requesting the N.C. General Assembly enact legislation for the raised tax in March 2016. A second resolution adopted earlier this year called for the same support.
While she was not present at Monday’s meeting, Barefoot offered comments in a memo to the Board of Commissioners. In it, she reiterated that the tax was not one on local taxpayers or property owners. She also pointed out the lack of opposition from Sampson’s lodging providers.
“It only applies to guests who utilize overnight accommodations in local motels, bed and breakfast establishment and through rooms rented via Airbnb,” Barefoot stated.
She added, “Your approval of this request will greatly enhance the ability of the CVB to more effectively market Sampson County to potential travelers and visitors.”
Discussion among commissioners was brief.
“I don’t care too much for raising taxes,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby.
“You’re just going to have to hold your nose on this one,” Wooten replied with a laugh.
“All of the lodging providers were in favor of the tax,” added Commissioner Sue Lee. “That sold me on it.”
A strategic plan for the Sampson County CVB, formulated from market research conducted by the Magellan Strategy Group LLC out of Asheville, identified the doubling of the occupancy tax as a primary goal for the group.
Of the revenue it takes in, the CVB board has the authority to spend up to two-thirds of funds on marketing and one-third of the funds on capital projects that have a public benefit. Having double the funds would be a massive boon to Sampson being able to market itself, CVB officials said.
Occupancy tax collections for 2014-15 in Sampson totaled $73,665, a far cry from the $257,162 collected in Duplin, $437,753 amassed in Harnett and $608,514 in Wayne that same year. By comparison, Johnston County saw just over $1 million in occupancy tax revenue while Cumberland was close to $5.6 million.
However, Sampson saw a sizable increase in occupancy tax collections to $93,990 in 2015-16 and then another slight uptick from there, to $97,556 in 2016-17 (July to June).
Visitors to Sampson County spent $48.3 million in 2015. While significantly below spending levels in other counties, that figure was actually $9 million higher than Duplin, and $10 million higher than Bladen. Spending in Sampson rose again to $50.6 million in 2016, according to Visit North Carolina.
Gov. Roy Cooper previously announced earlier this year that visitors to North Carolina set a record for spending in 2016 — spending nearly $23 billion, up by 4.4 percent from 2015’s total.
“I know they could use the money to help promote Sampson County,” Kirby stated of the occupancy tax proposal. “I’m looking at it from the general ordinary taxpayers’ point of view. Increasing taxes is something people don’t like to hear. If I had something to compare it to, that is one thing. If we’re going to be 6 (percent) and Duplin or Cumberland is going to be 5 or 4 (percent), that kind of concerns me.”
According to information provided previously by Barefoot, the room occupancy tax for Wayne and Johnston stands at 5 percent, while Cumberland, Duplin, Harnett and Pender all levy a 6 percent tax.
Commissioner Jerol Kivett echoed Barefoot’s point that Sampson taxpayers wouldn’t be the ones footing the additional tax — visitors to the county would. However, he shared the same aversion to tax hikes, but said it was his understanding that Sampson’s occupancy tax was currently lower than surrounding counties.
“I think you make a great point — we don’t want to put ourselves in a disadvantage,” Wooten noted to Kirby, “where somebody stays in Duplin or Wayne County because it’s cheaper.”
The board unanimously tabled the matter until next month, delaying any implementation of an increased occupancy tax.
“I don’t want to vote for it, and later on regret it,” Kirby stated.
Last month, Expo Center director Ray Jordan encouraged CVB board members to attend the Monday meeting in support of the occupancy tax hike request. However, no one spoke to the matter on behalf of the board.
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