All but one of eight candidates for the Teton County Commission support renewing the lodging tax, a 2 percent tax on visitors’ hotel stays.
Independent candidate Sandy Ress, who said he “doesn’t really want the job” of commissioner but feels the call of duty because of a passion for the valley and what he sees as an urgent need to stop growth, was the lone lodging tax opponent at a Rotary and Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday.
“Yes, we can use the money,” Ress said, “but the detriments that come from it, in my view, are not worth it. We’re degrading our quality of life with over-tourism, and I think we need to stop it.”
Sixty percent of the lodging tax’s revenues are required to go toward travel and tourism promotion, while the other 40 percent go toward mitigating visitor impacts. A four-year renewal of the tax is on the ballot on Nov. 6.
The other seven candidates said the funds stemming from that 40 percent — which amounted to $2.9 million for the town and county in fiscal year 2018 — are too essential to turn down.
Democrat Seadar Rose Davis said the lodging tax is the No. 1 issue she hears while going door to door. As a START board member, she said the bus system, along with other community groups, relies on lodging tax funds.
“I fear if we don’t have the lodging tax we’re leaving a lot of money on the table,” Davis said.
Republican Andrew Byron said he supports the lodging tax because it aids amenities like town sidewalks, ambulances and community events like Pole Pedal Paddle.
“We’re going to have to find a way to either make up $2.9 million or cut critical services,” Byron said.
Republican Mark Barron agreed, saying beloved community events like the Fall Arts Festival are supported by the lodging tax.
“These are the things we love and cherish, and they’re paid for by the visitors,” Barron said. “I would rather our visitors are chipping in.”
Incumbent Mark Newcomb, a Democrat, said that if the lodging tax is rejected hoteliers will continue to ensure Jackson Hole is promoted.
The difference is, he said, “the public will get zero percent of that.”
“This is about, ‘Do we want to capture at least a little bit of that $370 million, $380 million that visitors spend here on lodging for public purposes?’” Newcomb said.
He suggested the lodging tax isn’t the way to go about growth management. Instead, he said, the right way is “careful, thoughtful zoning and standards on our potential for growth.”
Several candidates supporting the tax said commissioners need to go to Cheyenne to negotiate a shift in the 60-40 revenue split.
“We need to do what we can to get the authority to get more flexibility with the expenditure of it so that we’re not stuck to the 60-40 ratio and we can spend it with more flexibility and innovation,” Democrat Luther Propst said.
Independent candidate Wes Gardner, another supporter of the tax, said that as commissioner he would work with the Legislature on a new distribution of the tax.
He suggested doubling the rate of the tax, sharing 10 to 20 percent of the revenues with other counties in Wyoming to “get them on board.”
Then, Gardner said, the amount going toward promotion could decrease to 30 percent while the dollar amount remained the same.
“If we were willing to double it, then split it to some extent with the rest of the state, we could probably get other legislators on board,” Gardner said.
“That’s the kind of solution I would take to Cheyenne,” he said.
Republican Mary Martin said commissioners need to build relationships with state lawmakers to negotiate legislation to “allow us to use the lodging tax more appropriately to mitigate our visitors’ impacts.”
“There’s a huge networking and relationships piece,” Martin said.