The sales tax bill you never saw coming

I want to write a column that supports the idea of raising the sales tax in James City and York counties and Williamsburg as a way to pay for tourism marketing.

I want to applaud the plan to ensure a consistent flow of money to pay for those efforts.

I want to commend the localities for working with the state to find a way to bring in more revenue without going to real estate taxes.

I want to give Williamsburg a giant high five for finding a way to ditch the overly burdensome Tourism Development Fund taxes.

And I guess I want to give state Sen. Tommy Norment a trophy for looking out for the best interests of Colonial Williamsburg, on whose Board of Directors he serves; they will certainly get much-needed relief from this tax increase as opposed to those approved by the city.

But I keep choking on the effort and the words — and for a few very specific reasons.

» Lack of transparency: I learned about this by reading it in the newspaper. OK, I learned about it in the news meeting before the paper was printed. But none of our elected City Council members or county supervisors or city managers or county administrators or the people running the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the super secret “working group” who were parties to this plan bothered to let those of us who would be paying the higher tax know about it. In fact, they agreed not to share the discussions publicly.

After all the tumult about the lack of communication around the city’s TDF, you’d think someone would bother to let us pesky, sales-tax-paying citizens know what was coming and give us a chance to ask questions.

Sure, if you knew Norment was going to introduce the bill to the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 19 you could have called or sent an email or popped over to Richmond to make a comment, but I suspect most of you didn’t know about the bill either.

This behind-closed-doors, father-knows-best approach to government is outdated and offensive. If there’s a good case to be made as to why we should pay a broad sales tax to support tourism marketing, then make it. Make it in public and to the people who will pay the tax.

» Tourism marketing as infrastructure: In talking about his bill to Daily Press reporter Dave Ress, Norment likened the measure to ones used to fund big roadworks, such as the Interstate 64 widening project. Sales tax revenue has long been used to build roads, bridges, airports and the like. But this 1 percent stream of revenue would do two things: half of it is earmarked to pay to market tourism; the other half goes into the coffers of the three localities. The bill does not specify any particular use for the localities’ share of that money.

History, and the tourism that surrounds it, are core to the region’s identity and economy. We all understand that. Tourism brings a lot of money to town and keeps thousands of people employed. We all know that, too.

But is marketing tourism really infrastructure?That seems like a stretch.

Back in 2004, hoteliers and the localities prevailed on the General Assembly to create the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, which would market the area as a tourism destination using money from a flat $2 tax on all rooms. It was a very specific assessment for a very specific use.

Back in July, at a meeting organized by the restaurateurs to air concerns about the Tourism Development Fund taxes, Ron Kirkland, executive director of Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association, stood up and said that the WADMC plan to promote tourism hadn't worked.

In 2017, receipts from the three localities contributed $3,165,081 to WADMC, according to its audit.

The impact statement filed with the bill in the General Assembly anticipates the 1 percent sales tax increase will generate $20.7 million in 2019 and $23.1 million in 2020 — an 11 percent increase; that calms down to 2 percent in following years.

Roughly $10.3 million would go to market tourism; did WADMC not work because it was underfunded for more than 13 years?

But wait, WADMC isn’t the only group that spent money marketing tourism for the Historic Triangle: CW spent $4.6 million on advertising and promotion in 2016, according to its Form 990. The Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and other groups also spent money marketing to tourists.

The localities already send hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Chamber to pay to market tourism. Will that continue?

And, if it turns out that half of 1 percent is still not enough to get the job done, what then?

WADMC would get reconfigured somewhat — and a new name — and would be led by “a professional with extensive experience in marketing or advertising and in the tourism industry,” according to the bill. Short- and long-term strategic plans would be ordered up; it would coordinate marketing among venues, when asked. In short, the job would be to get people from near and far to come here and stay overnight.

The work still would be overseen by a group made up of elected officials from James City and York counties and Williamsburg, as well as representatives from several nonprofit tourism destinations, a for-profit business and the state. No mere citizens would be part of the group.

Of course, there’s some give for the get.

Williamsburg would have to repeal its TDF taxes, which are set to go into effect July 1.

If we’re being honest, that was the match that lit the fuse here.

Williamsburg, acting on its own, raising meal and room taxes and adding an admissions tax, was never going to stand. Colonial Williamsburg — the already struggling biggest player in our tourism-driven economy — would be hit by all three measures.

All three localities would repeal the $2 room charge and restaurant meals would be exempt from the additional tax.

So, despite Norment’s claim that the bulk of the new revenue — that $20.7 million — would still come from visitors, noting the region draws large numbers of shoppers from outside the three localities, you and I will pay most of this.

We shop here every day: a cup of coffee, a pair of shoes, a flower pot for the deck or a new car will all contribute to marketing tourism and sending a little something extra to the localities.

This bill may be a great idea; your guess is as good as mine.

Take a day and read through it and the impact statement — you can do that on our website at

But one impact Norment and the “working group” failed to consider is you.

They failed to consider that you care about what government does in your name, you care about taxes, how they’re assessed and what they pay for and, yes, you care about history and tourism.

They failed to consider that you care enough to know that doing business behind closed doors is bad business.

As I said, this may all be a great idea; but we’ll clearly have to figure that out for ourselves, 1 percent at a time.

Bellows is editor of The Virginia Gazette. You can reach her at 345-2347, or @peggybellows.

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