County proposes lodging tax review

Two of the three Baker County commissioners want to hire a consultant to coordinate a comprehensive review of how the county spends nearly half a million dollars in lodging taxes that guests at motels and other establishments pay annually.

But that plan is contingent on Drew Martin, an attorney for the attorney, deeming it legally sound for the county to extend, for the fourth time in the past 15 months, the county’s current contract with the Baker County Chamber of Commerce to operate the visitors center using lodging tax revenue.

Most recently, commissioners extended that contract, which is for about $77,000 per year, through Aug. 31, 2021.

On Wednesday, May 19, commissioners Mark Bennett and Bruce Nichols voted for a motion, pending Martin’s decision about extending the Chamber of Commerce contract, to have another attorney who’s also working for the county, Kim Mosier, draft a request for proposals (RFP) to help the county find a contractor to oversee the lodging tax system review.

That would include scheduling public meetings and gathering input from business owners in the visitor industry, and potentially writing additional RFPs for the visitor center as well as the other legs of the lodging tax stool, tourism marketing and economic development.

The current lodging tax ordinance, which dates to 2006, requires that the county spend 70% of the revenue for tourism marketing, and 25% for economic development.

The county has separate contracts for tourism marketing and economic development as well as for operating the visitors center.

The county can keep up to 5% for administrative costs.

Commission Chairman Bill Harvey abstained from voting on the motion Wednesday.

During a work session on May 12, the three commissioners had argued over the lodging tax issue.

Bennett and Nichols took the position that when commissioners voted on March 3 to extend the visitor center contract to Aug. 31, that the six-member work group formed, three each appointed by the county and Baker City, would solicit opinions from tourism businesses to help guide a new RFP for operating the visitor center.

But Harvey, who was one of the county’s representatives on the work group, said it wasn’t possible to do that and have an RFP ready before the contract extension ends Aug. 31.

Bennett, though, on Wednesday reiterated his point from May 12, that commissioners need input from businesses that depend on visitors.

“I believe that we can’t build a roadmap or any guidance until we hear what everybody is thinking about out there,” Bennett said. “The RFP for the consultant, that will include listening sessions with the community and the visitor services center, engagement with the visitor services industry.”

He said the idea is to build on the efforts of the six-member work group, which met several times in March and April and drafted an RFP for operating the visitors center, anticipating the need to put the RFP out in time to allow the county to receive and review proposals before Aug. 31.

“We do have a lot of work done, it’s collecting our work, putting it together in a package because there’s work the work group just did, there’s the work the (county lodging tax committee has) done, there’s the 2018 marketing plan, all of this is more a compilation,” Bennett said.

During the commissioners’ work session on May 12, and a meeting that evening with members of the city/county work group, there was a discussion about potentially extending the Chamber of Commerce’s contract to operate the visitors center until March 2022.

Commissioners initially planned to award a new contract in February 2020. The county received two proposals, one from the Chamber and one from Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.