Council votes to do away with restaurant tax

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Change will require two readings, publication before taking effect

By Stephen Lega

The Lebanon City Council has voted to eliminate the city's restaurant tax.

Councilman Jerry Abell made the motion, which was seconded by Councilman Kenny Marrett and officially approved 5-0 by the council. Councilwoman Denise Fogle did not cast a vote on Abell's motion, but under parliamentary rules, her non-vote is included with the majority.

Councilwoman Kate Palagi, who recently gave birth to her fourth child, was not present at the meeting.

Monday's vote is only the first step toward eliminating the restaurant tax, however. The council must approve two readings of an amendment to its tourism ordinance and that amendment must be published officially before the tax would end.

Marrett initiated the discussion about tourism at the end of the March 7 meeting.  After the piece in last week's Enterprise (http://www.lebanonenterprise.com/content/mission-or-intermission), Marrett said he received three emails over the weekend. The email writers urged an end to the abuse of tourism dollars, expressed concern about wasteful spending of tax money, and stated that they were appalled at the blatant disregard for the taxpayers hard-earned money.

“These statements reflect the heartbeat of this community, of how they feel about how our tourism dollars are being spent,” Marrett said. 

He reminded the council that he had been appointed to the tourism commission in hopes of saving tourism and in an effort to alleviate some the discontent in the community.

“It's time that this city council took some action of their own to help eliminate this situation,” Marrett said.

Mayor Gary Crenshaw said the only actions he was aware that the council could take would be to adjust the tourism tax rate, eliminate a tax or eliminate the tourism commission.

Marrett said there are other communities where the city council works with the tourism commission without a director and without an office, and in other communities, tourism is under the economic development office.

City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray said there are commissions without a director in the state. She said any move to alter the tax, to alter the commission or to alter the make-up of the board would require an amendment to the tourism ordinance.

Marrett made a motion to close the tourism office, to prepare a severance package to the tourism director and secretary, to temporarily move the tourism under the economic development office, and for the city council to hold meetings with local restaurants, hotels and the public to determine the direction of tourism's future. Marrett's motion died for lack of a second.

Councilman Abell said tourism has disrupted the community.

“The local people are disgruntled, and I think the disgruntlement is from our restaurant tax,” Abell said.

He then moved to eliminate the restaurant tax, but he specified that he would keep the tourism commission in place. Marrett seconded the motion.

“If you do away with it [the restaurant tax], you gut the tourism commission,” Crenshaw said.

According to the 2010-11 tourism budget, the tourism commission projected that it would receive $237,500 in revenue from the restaurant tax and $28,600 from the hotel tax.

After discussion among council members and the public (both in favor of Abell's motion and against it), the council approved Abell's motion.

Look for more in the March 9 print edition.