Let the good times — and tax money — roll

The next time you see Brenda Pogge, say thank you.

She’s the only person representing the Historic Triangle in Richmond who had the courage to question Sen. Thomas K. Norment’s SB942, a bill that increased the sales tax in Williamsburg as well as James City and York counties.

The bill has passed both houses in the General Assembly and is now headed to Gov. Northam for his signature.

Pogge’s objections highlighted several inconsistencies surrounding the bill and the thinking behind it, but I’ll focus on just one today: How the money is used.

As part of the return on a Freedom of Information Act request to James City County, a draft of the bill dated Jan. 11 calls for a .5 percent tax that would be used to fund tourism marketing. There are conditions regarding existing tourism taxes that would need to be met for the bill to go into effect: The $2 per night transient room fee goes away for all three localities, along with the city of Williamsburg’s trio of taxes that would have fed its Tourism Development Fund, money that went to the city for it to make a “generational” investment in tourism. Those included an admissions tax and increases in the meals and room taxes.

So, under the .5 percent tax proposal, the city loses a multi-million dollar revenue stream in the Tourism Development Fund.

On Jan. 19, Norment introduced a bill for a 1 percent tax increase, half of which would simply flow to the localities. The state Department of Revenue estimates that would be about $11 million the first year — and it would be divvied up among the three localities. Same rules about revoking other taxes apply.

Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, speaking to the House Finance Committee on behalf of the bill, commented that half the tax money would flow to the localities and they could develop tourism assets, such as building a performing arts center. That’s a lovely thought and maybe that will happen, but the bill, as written, puts no conditions on how the money given to localities is spent.

Sure, perhaps the city will finally put in that third softball field at Kiwanis Park that kept showing up on its list of projects it could pursue with TDF money, but perhaps it will simply fill the projected gaps in its operating budget to delay raising property taxes. Whatever, if the governor signs the bill, the city would get to repeal a trio of unpopular taxes and win a nice infusion of cash it didn’t have to tax anyone to get. Winner!

On the other hand, James City did the hard, ugly work on property taxes a few years back, bit the bullet and did what it considered to be the right thing. County supervisors and officials met exhaustively with citizens and answered questions over and over before finally adding 7 cents to the property tax levy. Will they give some of it back if a new, unsought revenue stream appears? We’ll see.

As for the original .5 percent that would go to market tourism, Riordan assured the Finance Committee — because, remember, no one bothered to talk with citizens about any of this — that top people from local tourism destinations and associations would help decide how that sales tax money is spent. We’ll get back to you on that, because details are still a little slim on how a reconstituted WADMC would work.

So, to boil it down: it looks like the proposed sales tax increase could raise about $22 million more dollars in its first year. Half of that would go to a reconstituted WADMC to market tourism and the other $11 million would flow, unfettered, to the localities, Williamsburg being the only one that felt the need to raise taxes now in the first place.

One other point: after being on the record as a strong supporter of the bill, Mike Mullin, D-93rd, voted against it on the House floor Wednesday. I’d like to think the idea of the plan being hatched behind closed doors with no citizen input or the inappropriateness of the state levying this tax caused him to have second thoughts about it. I guess you’ll have to call and ask him: 804-698-1093.

In the meantime, let Gov. Northam know what you think: 804-786-2211

Bellows is editor of the Virginia Gazette. Reach her at 757-345-2347, pbellows@vagazette.com or @peggybellows.

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