By Peter H. Milliken
A proposed increase in Mahoning County’s bed tax for hotels and motels from 3 percent to 5 percent was not on the Mahoning County commissioners’ Thursday agenda, but it still loomed large at their meeting.
Commissioner Chairman John A. McNally IV said after the meeting that he did not know when the commissioners would vote on the proposal.
A parade of speakers from the local lodging industry descended on the commissioners’ meeting last week to protest the proposed tax increase, saying it would drive business, especially from bus tours and groups, away from their establishments. The commissioners then tabled the proposal.
If it were to be enacted, the increase would go to the Western Reserve Port Authority, which operates Youngstown- Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, whose runways and taxiways are used by the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.
“I don’t think that the commissioners, as a group, would even think of imposing a tax on the general public, knowing what the backlash would be. I think it’s wrong to single out one group,” Maggy Lorenzi of Youngstown said, referring to the lodging industry.
“I hate to see people losing their jobs, which they will,” if local hotel and motel occupancy drops due to a tax increase, she said in her statement of opposition.
“It disturbs me very much the direction you want to take this. I think you’re putting the cart in front of the horse,” said Bruce Paulette of Youngstown, a former member of the county Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, which is funded by the bed tax.
“Our visitors’ bureau should be meeting with [Covelli Centre Director] Eric Ryan at least twice a month to promote this Valley, especially now,” he said, noting the potential economic development from the shale industry and its convention business.
“That would put people in beds, and that would increase your revenue,” from the bed tax, Paulette added.
“But to put it on the backs of the hotels is wrong. These people spend millions of dollars to build these hotels” and maintain them, he said.
A few hours before the commissioners’ meeting, Scott Lynn, port authority board chairman, issued a news release saying commissioners may be jeopardizing the future of the air base if they don’t provide extra bed tax revenue to the port authority.
Lynn, who did not speak at the commissioners’ meeting, said the extra revenue is even more critical after Wednesday’s Air Force announcement that the air base in Vienna will lose 97 part-time and 33 full-time positions next year as part of a $487 billion defense budget cut.
“We’re afraid that these cutbacks may just be the tip of the iceberg,” Lynn warned. The Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) “will continue to assess which bases to maintain and which to close altogether,” Lynn said in the release.
Community support for aviation activities at airports that have Air Force facilities is a key factor in the commission’s selection of air bases to be retained, he said.
Sarah Lown, senior manager of the port authority’s economic development division, said Trumbull County’s hotel and motel occupancy has increased in the year since the bed tax there went from 3 percent to 5 percent.
Speaking during an interview after the meeting, Lown said, “The bed tax rarely has any effect on the local hotel industry. It’s the customer who pays.”
“Residents aren’t paying it. Landmen for the oil and gas industry are coming and staying here, and people come and stay here for other reasons. They’re the ones who are paying it,” she said.
The average hotel room charge in Mahoning County is about $82 a night, and the proposed bed tax increase would add a mere $1.60 to that, Lown said.