City OKs lodging tax; county approval asked

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2000

After hearing closing arguments from both sides Tuesday night,Brookhaven aldermen voted 5-2 to request local and privatelegislation for a 2 percent lodging tax to fund chamber of commercetourism and retiree development efforts.

However, with one hotel in the county and a desire for a levelplaying field, the case was appealed to “county court” for theboard of supervisors to approve. City Attorney Joe Fernald said thecounty also would have to approve the tax request plan for thecity’s action to be active.

“It has to be a unanimity of action,” Fernald said.

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Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice-President Chandler Russ washopeful and optimistic supervisors would approve the plan to askthe state legislature to allow the tax, which is expected togenerate around $60,000 a year. Russ said he will be trying to geton the supervisors’ agenda, possibly for their next meeting on Dec.29.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Russ and hotel-motel associationspokeswoman Lenoir Heiderman, who is opposed to the tax, reiteratedmany of the arguments used during earlier individual meetings withthe mayor and board.

Heiderman said other communities, like McComb, have moreattractions to bring travelers to their areas. She said Brookhavenlacks tourist attractions, and having a tourist tax was “puttingthe cart before the horse.”

“We don’t have a city for people to come to necessarily as atourist at this moment,” Heiderman said.

Heiderman said much of the local hotel-motel traffic iscorporate travelers or construction workers doing business in thecity.

“Those people would definitely be hurting if they had to pay anadditional tax,” Heiderman said.

Heiderman said people are very cost-conscious and ‘every littlebit’ of savings makes a difference. She said Brookhaven hotels arealready losing business to McComb, which has a mall and otherattractions, and are having to “negotiate” rates to get people tostay here.

“We’re not going to be able to raise our rates. It’s just goingto be 2 percent off our bottom line,” Heiderman said.

Russ disagreed with the hotel association’s position. He said 47other communities in the state are benefiting from a special taxoption.

“The chamber and Brookhaven need to be on a level playing fieldwith the rest of the state,” said Russ, who asked the associationto be involved in the process by having a representative on theretiree development board.

Russ said the premise of the debate was whether the city wantedto hold on tightly to the market share it already has or developand build in pursuit of more. Citing the Victorian District andstate parks in the area, Russ said Brookhaven has many attractionsto promote, plus the city could serve as a center point for peopleto stay here and visit surrounding areas.

“We feel we’ve got to be aggressive in attacking that marketshare instead of trying to hold onto what we’ve got,” Russsaid.

For local citizens, Russ pointed out the lodging tax would bethe least expensive means of supporting chamber efforts. Also, hementioned a former hotel owner who said a lodging tax is a”non-event” when people travel.

Ward 2 Alderman Terry Bates said the board wanted to make theright decision on the tax, and he questioned its impact on localindustry through business travel. Russ did not think the tax wouldaffect companies’ bottom lines.

Ward 3 Alderman the Rev. Jerry L. Wilson said the tax was not awise decision.

Other aldermen, though, saw no problem with the tax and thoughtit would ultimately help the hotels.

“I think it’s some of the best and cheapest advertising they canget,” said Alderman-at-large Henry Newman, who made the motion tosupport the lodging tax.

With no related crime problems and their stable finances, Newmansaid retirees are some of the best residents a town can have. Also,he said the tax would be paid by people from out of town, but fundswould be used to help people in town.

Ward 5 Alderman Tom Smith said the city needed to look forwardand not backward.

“We need to look ahead,” he said.

Ward 6 Alderman John E. “Buddy” Allen questioned why peoplewould travel 20 miles away to save the estimated 70 cents to $1that the lodging tax would cost on a hotel room.

“I can’t see them wanting to do that,” Allen said.

Newman’s motion was approved 5-2, with Bates and Wilson votingagainst it.