If Franklin County legislators were looking for a consensus on their proposal to institute a new 5 percent hotel occupancy tax, they didn't find it in two hearings Thursday night.
In Tupper Lake, about 10 hotel and motel owners, plus several other residents, village representatives and members of the committee that put together the proposal packed into the small village courtroom. Hotel and motel owners angrily criticized the bed tax in its current form and complained that the hearing was only scheduled to last an hour, because they didn't feel like they had time to air their concerns thoroughly.
A half-hour later in Saranac Lake, only two people who would be affected by the tax showed up, and most of the folding chairs set up in the large Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium were empty. The two registered their complaints about the bed tax, and the hearing lasted a little more than 30 minutes.
Jan Kwasniak, co-owner of the Pine Terrace Motel and Resort, criticizes Franklin County’s proposal to institute a 5 percent bed tax at a packed hearing Thursday evening in the Tupper Lake village courtroom.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, said it's hard to reconcile the difference between the two hearings.
Legislators seemed to agree, though, that the tax needs more work before they pass it and send it to Albany for approval by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They had said they hoped to send it to Albany by the end of January, but several legislators said there will at least be some small changes and another round of hearings before they approve a final law setting out a bed tax.
New board Chairman David "Billy" Jones, D-Chateaugay, said he still thinks the county needs some sort of strategic marketing plan to encourage tourism, though, and he sees a bed tax as the way to fund it.
"It's the only thing we have in this county," Jones said after the hearings. "I firmly believe that we have to come up with something."
Jones said he didn't like the idea of a bed tax when he was first elected two years ago, but when business people and hotel owners came to him saying they wanted one, they convinced him it was necessary.
He said he hopes the people who first learned about the tax Thursday night will take it home and read it and warm up to the idea.
Concerns in Tupper
Margaret Ernenwein, who owns the Park Motel in Tupper Lake, was on the committee of chamber of commerce officials who put together the original push for a bed tax in the county.
Ernenwein said she is "totally against it" if all the money raised from the tax is given to Franklin County Tourism. She said the original intent was to distribute the money back to the towns, saying the county tourism department has never done a thing for her business.
"If it goes to Franklin County Tourism, it's not going to help us one bit," Ernenwein said. "You changed the whole intent of it."
She said she can track where the clicks to her website come from, and people find her site through the local chamber of commerce and local government websites, but never from the Franklin County Tourism.
Others chimed in in agreement. Aldona and Jan Kwasniak, who run the Pine Terrace Motel and Resort, said they don't have enough business.
"This town is dying," Aldona Kwasniak said. "We don't have tourism at all. ... This tax is not going to help us at all."
The crowd was also concerned about the amount of the proposed tax - 5 percent tax. Terry Doolen of Shaheen's Motel said the neighboring counties have lower bed taxes so that would put Franklin County establishments at a disadvantage.
Village Trustee Rick Donah said he agrees that the county government doesn't often help Tupper Lake, noting that the county board recently agreed to give Saranac Lake $25,000 for a tourism marketing program that doesn't include Tupper Lake.
"Tupper Lake, I feel, is not getting the representation it should as far as what needs to be done to move us forward," Donah said. "You can feel and hear the frustration in the motel owners' voices. ... There is a palpable sense that we're on the edge of a cliff."
Robin Doolen, Terry's wife, expressed concern that the tax won't be enforced. During committee hearings, the people putting together the tax talked about how the county doesn't have much of a mechanism to enforce the tax, which would be administered by the county treasurer's department rather than the state.
Most of the owners said they wished they had been conferred with before the tax reached this point.
"We feel like we've been left out of the loop," Robin Doolen said.
She and Jay Chojnowski of the Red Top Inn both complained that they were just finding out about the tax. Chojnowski said he had never heard about it until 20 minutes before the hearing, when he got a phone call from someone, and he thinks someone should have called him to consult with him on the idea. Doolen said she has been following the topic in the local newspapers, but she thinks the draft of the law should have been sent to hotel and motel owners well in advance of the hearings.
Don Dew Jr., who runs the Timber Lodge motel, represented Tupper Lake on the committee that put together the proposal. He said he tried to get the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce to get involved in the process and talk with its member lodging owners, but he said it fell on deaf ears.
At the end of the hearing, Maroun said he was under the impression that the lodging community in Tupper Lake was included in the discussion. Now that he knows there wasn't consensus, he plans to hold a meeting with all the motel owners in Tupper Lake without the rest of the legislators there and take all the time they want to hash out their concerns on the bed tax before another draft of the law is written up.
"If my hotels and motels don't want it, I'm not going to vote for it," Maroun told the crowd.
In Saranac Lake
Curtis Reynolds was the first to speak in Saranac Lake. He lives in Lake Clear, on a property that's been in family since the 1960s, and the value of the property has ballooned since those days. When the assessment reached $1 million recently, Reynolds and his wife started having to rent out their home for three weeks in the summer and spend that time in the woods so they can afford their taxes.
He said he knows he could sell the house, but he wants his children, who have had to move out of the area to get decent jobs, and his grandchildren to be able to enjoy the same house he's been able to enjoy.
Reynolds said he can't afford for more taxes to be taken from his income.
"There's got to be other alternatives," Reynolds said. "Taxing the people that are trying to get by is not the answer, in my book."
Chris LaBarge, who runs the Holiday Inn Express in Malone and was on the Bed Tax Committee, said it might be a good idea to explicitly exclude people who rent out their primary residence in the law, and legislators agreed.
Sewa Arora, who runs the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake, said he gets people who call and ask whether there is a bed tax in Franklin County. When he answers no, they decide to stay at his hotel, he said.
Burpoe said he talked with Jim Murnane, who runs the Best Western Mountain Lake Inn on the Essex County side of Saranac Lake, and Murnane told him that no one has ever asked about the bed tax in his time running that establishment. Essex County instituted its bed tax in 1998.
"We've been here six years," Arora said. "And we get that question all the time. They come to us because we don't have the bed tax."
Arora questioned some of the county's projected numbers and said that with all the administrative costs, there will be nothing left from the bed tax for advertising.
"I'm totally against that," Arora said. "It's not going to help."
Maroun noted that the entire discussion may be moot since Cuomo said in his Wednesday State of the State address that he won't support any new taxes. For the last several years, Cuomo has refused to sign in any new local taxes, like an increase in the Essex County sales tax.
"The governor's not going to sign the bill," Maroun said.
After the hearings, Jones said he disagreed that a bed tax would put Franklin County lodging owners at a disadvantage. He said most people don't look at the breakdown of the fees and taxes when they are staying at a hotel.
"I honestly don't think that discourages people," Jones said after the hearing.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.