Occupancy tax tempest swirls in county session

Loujane Johns

This summer’s weather has been a mixed bag of unpredictable ups and downs, and so was the August meeting of the Yates County Legislature.  Just as the stormy weather has swirled around the atmosphere, the tempest over the county’s 4 percent occupancy tax continues to cloud the political forum.

Appointments, awards and words of praise prefaced the meeting. This was followed by a sad report by Legislator Deb Flood on the state of the poor in the county. Next Chairman Bob Multer asked if anyone would like to speak to the legislature. 

Several speakers took the microphone to protest the county’s 4 percent occupancy tax and the discussion got quite heated. Well over an hour passed before Multer called for a five minute recess prior to moving to  the regular agenda.

RECOGNITION

Public Safety Committee Chair Donna Alexander thanked Chief Deputy Howard Davis, Sgt. Ed Nimitz and Correction Officer Lisa Wood for their work on an award winning design for Yates County patrol cars, which will appear in Law and Order Magazine.

Legislator Doug Paddock recognized P. Earle Gleason for being named “VA Officer of the Year.”  Taylor Fitch announced Ryan Hallings has been named as Empire Zone Coordinator.  Multer named  Sondra Warriner and Alicia Fish to the Youth Board.

GRANTS

Administrator Sarah Purdy says she is pleased to report the receipt of  a state grant of $750,000 for home ownership.  “The program is helpful and popular for first time homeowners and those in need of help,” she said.

SOCIAL?SERVICES

Flood began a very serious talk about the Social Service System.  She said, “A lot of people want to talk with me about ‘Welfare’. They think it consists of a lot of free loaders on the system. It is not.  A lot of money goes to children in poverty.”

She painted a bleak picture, by saying last year at the Penn Yan Elementary School there were 169 kids in the “backpack program.”  This year, she has heard  there could be between 450 to 500 kids.  The program provides weekend nutritional food for kids who may not get a good meal when they are not in school.

Flood said this program is funded by Food for the Needy from food bank items and not from Social Service.  She said she was using the example to show how serious the problem is for the children. 

The other population at risk, she said, are the aging.  “Some senior citizens live on $9,000 a year, far below the poverty level.”   Referring to the county budget for Social Services, she told the audience, “There is just not enough money to go around and people don’t understand that.

“I have been here for a long time.  We are a county of 25,000 people that is expected to maintain services just as a county with a million people.

“The Department of Social Services is working their fingers to the bone trying to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves,”  She said, concluding, “You can’t always see other’s disabilities, especially mental health issues.”

TAX?OPPOSITION

The public comment section of the meeting started with a property owner, who said he did not rent his property and was not directly affected by the occupancy tax. 

He asked if the board had reviewed a study done in Ontario County that said an occupancy tax would have negative impact.  He said Ontario County does not charge tax on rentals under three units. He also questioned why he had gotten an inquiry asking if he rented while a neighbor who did rent, did not receive one.

Multer told the resident that everyone should have gotten an inquiry.  He agreed to look at a copy of the Ontario study.

The resident then asked, “What would it take for you to reconsider?” Multer replied, “It is a law, it is in effect and there is no move to reconsider at this time.”

Linda Rummel then spoke, “I don’t need another tax.  My impression is you think we are all rich summer people.  I personally spend eight hours a week cleaning my property.  I also help my neighbors and do volunteer work.  I must raise my rents to get the same amount of money.”

Rummel said she has to file the tax reports four times a year and asked for the number to be reduced.  She suggested the money be given to a group who are truly interested in tourism, such as the Keuka Lake Association or Friends of the Outlet.  The 25 or so members of the audience supporting a repeal of the tax applauded.

Cliff Orr called for a breakdown of information on the amount collected from the small property renters. 

Bob Taylor of Dundee said, “You were elected for the people by the people.  I think you need to listen to the petitioners.” 

He also told the board that his is President of the Dundee Rotary Club and they are looking for a project to do, possibly for dental health for senior citizens. Fitch  told him to contact him because he thought it would be a good project.

Legislator Tim Dennis said as a new member of the board, he had done research on minutes from the beginning of the occupancy tax debate.  

He said back in 2005, when talks began, there were bed and breakfast owners who were on record as approving of an occupancy tax.  He said joint meetings were suspended when litigation was begun.

Fitch added that Yates County is one of the few surrounding counties that did not have an occupancy tax.  He said the Chamber of Commerce, by increasing their revenue gets better matching funds.

Flood reported the Chamber of Commerce gets $57,238,  The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance receives $11,560 and The Finger Lakes Wine Country and Tourism Marketing gets $38,625 from the Yates County budget.

She said the county spends a lot of other money in other ways just to make the county look nice for tourists.  “Unfortunately, the occupancy tax was taken too personally.  It was not meant to be. We wanted it to be fair to everyone,” she said.

On a note of levity Flood said, ”The county is in good financial standing.This is a fine group of ‘cheapskates,’ and as Democratic whip I can say that.”

As members of the opposition continued to speak, they threw barbs about the Chamber of Commerce and their members not attending meetings of the Legislature.

Fitch asked why they were running the Chamber of Commerce down.  “It is absolutely wrong.  I ask people to send Letters to the Editor. I will not put up with this any longer.” Fitch said.

Fitch later apologized for getting so angry. When asked if he would personally reconsider changes or repeal, he said there might be some things that could be done, such as changing the number of times reports need to be filed or a change in penalties — but not the law.

Mixed amongst the speakers on the occupancy tax, Bill Butcher asked the board in light of the state budget if this county plans to cut their budget. 

Multer replied that the county is presently in the budget process and trying to analyze ways to save money.  He said in e-mails received from other counties, everyone is facing this.

Butcher then asked, “Are you looking or going to do something about it?”

Multer then said he would be happy to sit down with Butcher and go over the budget.