City council denies request for hotel-motel tax allocation

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council has denied a request from a local hotel owner that city officials said could lead to the eventual closure of the Upshur County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

At its April 20 meeting, city council voted to endorse a recommendation from the city’s Revenue & Expense Review Committee to deny a request from Jerry Henderson, owner of the Baxa Inn, for a partial allocation of the 6 percent hotel-motel tax she collects monthly at the Baxa Inn from customers.

All hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts in Upshur County, including the Baxa Inn, collect a 6 percent hotel/motel tax from patrons. That tax revenue is then remitted to the city, which serves as a pass-through. Then, 70 percent of the total is distributed to the Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and 30 percent is allocated to the city’s Consolidated Public Works Board, which oversees Buckhannon’s flower/beautification initiative, city parks, streets and the cemetery.

Henderson said the CVB, which is charged with marketing the Buckhannon-Upshur area to visitors, had not been helpful in attracting guests to her establishment. She said she could more effectively market her property, especially given the recent renovations underway. She requested an allocation of 50 percent of the monthly hotel-motel tax revenue collected at her property.

“I believe that we (local hotel/motel owners) know our business better than the tax allocators,” Henderson told council. “You need to understand that we have highs and lows, and we have different times that we need to do more advertising than other times. I think that with that knowledge and with the new property changes that I’m going to be making, I need to be very selective about where I advertise.”

Henderson had submitted a letter to council that cited W.Va. State Code 7-18-14(1)(A), which she claimed stated that any hotel, motel or inn within a city can apply to that city for an appropriation of a portion – up to 75 percent – of the hotel/motel tax revenue it collects and remits to the municipality monthly.

“As provided in the Code, I am requesting your consideration that a portion (50 percent) of the hotel-motel tax submitted monthly by the Baxa Inn be returned to the business,” Henderson wrote. “It will be used for advertising to put ‘Heads in Beds’ by bringing customers to Buckhannon businesses.”

However, according to state law, hotel-motel owners may only request their hotel-motel tax allocation for two reasons: “if a convention and visitor’s bureau is not located within such municipality, county or region” or if the existing CVB in that city or county had not “not complied with the requirements of [West Virginia Code] 7-18-13a,” according to Chapter 7, Article 18, Section 14 (1) (A) of state code.”

Since Upshur County has an existing CVB, state law requires the city to distribute funding to that entity.

Mayor Robbie Skinner explained that the Revenue & Expense Review Committee unanimously recommended council deny the request; he said granting the proposal would not only require changing the ordinance that governs how hotel-motel tax revenue is distributed but could also lead to the collapse of the CVB.

“That entity has been charged with marketing our community from a holistic approach to all of the events that take place here – everything from the Strawberry Festival to the BBQ Bash to Festival Fridays to the Dickens Festival to your event that was a wild success this past year, Santa Meets the Grinch as well as all the other attractions we have here like West Virginia Wesleyan College and the Wildlife Center,” Skinner said. “If we were to grant your request, it would require an ordinance change because the ordinance specifically says that 70 percent of the hotel-motel tax revenue received into the city will go to the Upshur County CVB.”

“This would open up the gate to any and all hotels within our municipality to request to receive the same monies to them, which would ultimately lead to the closure of the CVB because it cannot function without the hotel/motel revenue that we allocate to it through the provision of state code,” he added.

City recorder Randy Sanders, a member of the CVB Board, said he wanted the public to understand that hotel/motel tax revenue collected by the Baxa Inn, like any other hotel, was paid by the guests who stay here.

“It’s just like the sales tax that you pay to the state of West Virginia; you collect that and then send it to the state of West Virginia,” Sanders said. “I just didn’t want anyone listening to think that [the revenue collected] was coming out of your general funds.”

Henderson said she’s also frequently had to serve as a guide for visitors when the CVB is closed on weekends.

“I understand that, Randy, but perhaps what you don’t understand is that I have been left to bring those people to town myself,” Henderson said. “I have to advertise myself – that’s how we bring people to town. In the 12 years that we have been active – very active – and in the previous 15 years that we were active in the other business, I can tell you that I haven’t had heads in beds from the CVB. This is not an attack on the CVB.”

In the four years she’s owned and operated Baxa Inn, Henderson said she had only been visited by the CVB twice, both times to drop off materials for the Strawberry Festival.

“I haven’t gotten representation, and I have sent people to our CVB, and they have found it closed, so I have served as their guide to tell them where to go – I’m doing that, and I feel that it’s very unfair [for the CVB] to keep the money that is not working for me,” Henderson said. “You don’t know my customer, so how can you select where to advertise if you don’t know my customer?”

Skinner said perhaps now is an opportune time to improve communication between local hotel-motel owners and the CVB with the recent hire of Lacy Ramsey, the new interim CVB director.

“I think this is a great opportunity for maybe members of the CVB Board, the leadership, as well as Lacy to sit down with each and every hotel or even as a group, and let’s have a listening session of what hotels are looking for, what events you have planned and let’s all try to work together,” the mayor said.

Councilman David McCauley said he shared Henderson’s concerns about the CVB remaining closed on weekends.

“The 9-to-5 or 10-to-5 p.m. schedule doesn’t work because that’s not when folks are coming to visit,” he said.

Tammy Reger, the executive director of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce, which works closely with the CVB, said the CVB is currently advertising for someone willing to work part-time weekend hours to fill the gap.

Sanders made a motion to deny the request based on advice from the Revenue & Expense Review Committee, and councilman Jack Reger seconded it. Council voted to deny the request 5-1, with councilman David Thomas voting against the motion. Councilwoman Pam Bucklew was not present.