by Sarah Curry
Director of Fiscal Policy Studies
Most of us enjoy going on a vacation or two during the year, and that usually involves spending the night in a hotel or rental accommodation. Did you know that you are taxed on that hotel room and have no say about it? This current form of taxation without representation is known as an occupancy tax.
In 1983, the General Assembly passed a very controversial piece of legislation authorizing counties and municipalities to impose an occupancy tax for the first time in the state’s history. The tax was authorized in mostly populous counties like Buncombe, Mecklenburg, Forsyth, and New Hanover, but also included smaller Haywood County. Since that time, there have been over 200 counties and municipalities that have been given authorization by the General Assembly to levy an occupancy tax.
Even though the tax must be authorized at the state level through a local act in the legislature, only local governments may levy an occupancy tax. Upon authorization from the General Assembly, the local government’s governing authority, a city council or board of county commissioners, must pass a resolution formally levying the tax. Generally this process only includes a public hearing and not a referendum, as is the case with the sales tax. Similar to most local taxes except property tax, the occupancy tax doesn’t need to be levied each year in the budget, because it remains in place until it is repealed. The only changes that can be made to the tax must be done through either the local governing authority or the General Assembly.
Most of the occupancy taxes in North Carolina are between 3 and 6 percent. Brunswick County has the lowest rate at 1 percent, whereas Mecklenburg County/Charlotte has the highest rate at 8 percent and the only one over 6 percent. The extra 2 percent was authorized in 2005 to help finance the NASCAR hall of fame. In the taxable fiscal 2011-2012 year, total county collections were more than $135 million and municipal collections were more than $30 million. That’s a combined amount of over $165 million taken from tourists, business travelers, school groups, or anyone else who stayed in a hotel or rental accommodation in North Carolina during that time.
The collected funds from this tax are not sent to the general fund for local government use, but are used for specific purposes such as tourism, beach nourishment, or the construction or operation of convention and performing arts centers. While funds are spent on all of the previously listed items, tourism is the major focus of the tax’s revenue. When the tax is introduced to a local government for the first time, a local Tourism Development Authority, more commonly referred to as a TDA, is created. The local TDA is then in control of spending the occupancy tax collections on tourism promotion or related activities within the county or municipality. During the same FY 2011-12, almost $90 million of the collected tax went to Tourism Development Authorities across the state.
When local governments levy an occupancy tax, they think they can fund things within their jurisdiction with money from non-residents and at no cost to the local population and businesses. Unfortunately, that is not the case. When a hotel or bed and breakfast posts its nightly rate on the internet, it is very easy for travelers to compare prices with competing businesses. If an occupancy tax pushes the price of the room to a level that exceeds that of a neighboring county or city, then the traveler will often choose the lower rate. So in this case, the hotel within the higher occupancy tax area will likely be forced pay the cost of the rate increase to keep its rates competitive with neighboring business.
Other problems with this tax are the use of the funds and who is held accountable. TDAs make the decisions about where to spend the occupancy tax revenue, yet they are not accountable to voters. While any sales tax increase is put on a ballot for a vote, an occupancy tax increase is not. So not only do the out-of-town visitors not have a say in this tax, but the local businesses that could be negatively effected by this tax also do not have a voice in any changes to this tax.
A very relevant example of this can been seen in my most recent Spotlight report about Haywood County’s plans to increase their occupancy tax. The increase would leave Haywood County with the highest rate in the region at 6 percent, and reports from the TDA show that the current level of funding isn’t being fully used. Why do they need more? If the additional tax is levied in Haywood County, it will be a perfect example of how taxation without representation is still alive and thriving in local governments across North Carolina.
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