A controversial 2 percent tax on visitors’ hotel stays in Teton County has been renewed for another four years with support from almost 60 percent of voters.
Renewing the tax won 6,935 votes compared with 4,710 ballots cast against the tax. (See precinct breakdown on 18A.)
If you ask any of the local candidates what they talked about most while door-knocking this election cycle, they all have the same answer: the lodging tax. With tens of thousands spent on advertising to sway voters and heated debates shaking out on social media, the tax was among the most contentious items on the ballot this year.
State statutes require that 60 percent of the tax’s revenue be spent on travel and tourism promotion, while 40 percent is reserved for the town and county to mitigate visitor impacts. That spurred a fierce community debate about whether the funding that goes to the town and county for services like Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and START bus is worth the tourists the promotion dollars draw.
Two political action committees formed on either side of the lodging tax issue, bringing in a total of $152,619. A political action committee in support of the lodging tax, Residents for a Sustainable Community, raised $116,640, mostly from the hospitality industry, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Town Square Inns and Four Seasons Resort. The PAC opposed to the tax, Enough is Enough, raised $35,979, all from individuals including Justin Adams, Steven and Roberta Denning and Bill Phelps.
Phelps chaired Enough is Enough and argued that using any public funds for tourism promotion is unacceptable because the required promotion leads to excessive tourism, hurting the environment and worsening the valley’s problems like traffic congestion. Phelps said he was “sincerely saddened” to see voters approve the lodging tax. At the same time, he feels his group made its argument clear and respects voters’ decision.
“I think we made a decision about the future of Jackson Hole,” Phelps said. “The consequences are, I think, mostly unintended and unfortunately irreversible.”
Tim Harland, chairman of the pro-lodging tax PAC, felt the lodging tax’s renewal represents Teton County voters seeing through “emotional diatribe” to “make the best decision for our community.”
“It was a solid victory and a solid message that the voters provided,” Harland said, “knowing and believing that this funding source is viable and important for our town and county.”
Harland said that as a firefighter he deeply understands the benefits the lodging tax funding provides the community ($150,000 went to Fire/EMS in 2018. He’s ridden in an ambulance bought with lodging tax funds). His children are involved in youth soccer and the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, which also receive lodging tax funds.
Both sides have agreed the law requiring a 60-40 revenue split could be adjusted to better serve local needs — they just differed on the best route to get there. Phelps thought a rejection of the lodging tax could motivate legislators to change the required revenue split so that 100 percent of lodging tax revenue could go toward mitigating visitor impacts.
“I’d be delighted to see if there’s some change instituted because of this,” Phelps said, but he added he’s not holding his breath.
Anna Olson, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce director and a lodging tax supporter, said at a debate in October: “Going back to Cheyenne and saying, ‘Actually, we’re going to vote down $7 million in funding for our own county, and, by the way, can you change the law so it works better for us?’ It’s a dead-in-the-water approach. We believe ... collecting the lodging tax will allow us to go down there and negotiate potential change in the verbiage of the law.”
The lodging tax was consistently a top issue for voters at the polls Tuesday.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Riley Doyle, 25, said after supporting the tax at the Teton County Library polling place. “Collect some money on people who come here. Why not?”
Others hoped to nix the 2 percent tax on visitors’ hotel stays.
“We can allocate that money better than we have in the past, and I think we’ve overdone it with the promotion,” voter Lloyd Dorsey said.