Bed tax still a hot topic

An angry group of Tupper Lake motel owners once again verbally berated Franklin County legislators Wednesday night for their proposal to institute a bed tax.

Meanwhile, several lodging owners from the Essex County side of Saranac Lake showed up at the Harrietstown Town Hall to tout what the bed tax in that county has done for them.

County legislators Wednesday started a second round of hearings on the proposal, which would add a 5 percent tax to hotel, motel and other lodging stays in the county less than 30 days and put the money toward tourism development and marketing.

In the first round of hearings, about a dozen motel owners in Tupper Lake angrily told legislators that they do not want a bed tax instituted. Wednesday night in the Tupper Lake village courtroom, it was more of the same.

Tupper Lake anger

Legislators asked Nicole Brownell, co-owner of Gauthier’s Saranac Lake Inn on the Essex County side of the village, and Katy Van Anden, executive director of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, to speak in Tupper Lake before allowing other comments.

Brownell said she was in business when Essex County implemented its bed tax about a decade ago, and many business owners were nervous about it. But she said all the kinks have been ironed out and she has been happy with the services she has gotten from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism as a result.

“Since its implementation, it’s amazing what it’s done for our business,” Brownell said. “Our occupancy tax has helped keep Saranac Lake going.”

She said she hasn’t lost customers because of the tax, and customers never ask about it specifically. Instead, she gets a lot of customers commenting on the low taxes in Essex County, she said.

Brownell said the paperwork to fill out for the tax is light and only takes her a few minutes each quarter.

Margaret Ernenwein, who owns the Park Motel in Tupper Lake, said it’s impossible to compare the clientele in the greater Lake Placid area to that of Tupper Lake’s motels. She said the people who stay in hotels and motels in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake have more money and are not watching their pockets as closely, while the people who stay in Tupper Lake’s motels are lower-income families who can’t afford extra charges.

Jay Chojnowski of the Red Top Inn said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he won’t sign into law any new taxes, so legislators were wasting his money and time by presenting such an idea. Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, said Cuomo left the door open a crack by saying he may sign certain taxes into law if they fall within certain home-rule issues and if they are for tourism promotion.

Ernenwein said she is asking all her clientele to email Cuomo to ask him not to approve the tax.

Chojnowski was also concerned that the Tourism Advisory Committee, which the county board set up recently to develop a tourism plan for the county, will have nine members, but legislators are only requiring two of them to be from the southern end of the county. He said the nine people on the TAC won’t be able to agree how to spend the money raised by the tax anyway; they will eternally argue over whether Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake or Malone should get more money, Chojnowski said.

He said it’s not right that the county should ask about 25 businesses in the county to collect all the money to fix the county’s problems. Legislators had explained at the beginning of the hearing that they have been cutting money to the county’s tourism department, and the idea behind the bed tax was to find a way to make it sustainable and to invest in the county’s tourism programs without raising property taxes.

Donna Maliszewski, who runs the Sunset Park Motel, said Franklin County has fewer hotels and motels in the entire county than there are in the village of Lake Placid. She questioned how the county will make money off of the tax.

“What you’re offering is nonsense,” Maliszewski said. “We’re not going to benefit; you’re not going to benefit. … It’s a poor county. We barely make ends meet now.”

She said she has to constantly lower her prices for customers who say they can’t stay at her business at her current rates.

“When you can make a sale for the night, you give them what they want,” she said. “You don’t have that problem in Essex County.”

She and others questioned why the TAC includes representatives from industries other than lodging, since the lodging owners are the ones raising the money. Legislator Marc “Tim” Lashomb, R-Malone, explained that the idea is to use the TAC to find ways to promote the whole county, drawing people to stay in the county’s motels but also to take advantage of the county’s other businesses and recreational opportunities.

Maliszewski suggested that the county charge the tax of all the businesses that benefit from tourism.

Ernenwein said the biggest problem is that people in Tupper Lake don’t trust the county tourism board, because it has failed the area for many years.

Lashomb said that’s why the county is making changes in how it goes about marketing tourism. The TAC is intended to come up with a plan for it, he said.

Chojnowski said Tupper Lake can’t be grouped in with Saranac Lake or Malone in terms of marketing because they are so different. Brownell said that’s the nice thing about having a destination marketing organization working for you – it develops each location as its own destination, rather than trying to group everything together, she said.

The motel owners questioned why the board is still considering the tax after hearing from them multiple times that they don’t want it.

“Even if we say 1,000 times no, you people try to force this anyway,” said Jan Kwasniak, who runs the Pine Terrace Motel.

Hugh Hill, head of the Malone Chamber of Commerce, said Tupper Lake businesses aren’t the only ones who have a say in the matter.

“I have a chamber full of hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast operators who say yes,” Hill said. “It’s not entirely up to you. … This is a democracy.”

Dan McClelland, editor and publisher of the Tupper Lake Free Press, spoke up for the tax, saying that as a member of the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce, he knows it’s impossible to market the area without any funding. He noted that the chamber has a resolution on file supporting the bed tax.

“Unless we do something to change our situation, we’re never going to go anywhere,” McClelland said.

Paul Maroun, Tupper Lake’s mayor and representative on the county board, said he met with seven or eight of his town’s motel owners on Monday afternoon and listened to their concerns for about an hour-and-a-half.

“I promised them I would vote against it,” Maroun said. “Obviously, when all of my motel owners say no, I feel I have an obligation. It’s their business.”

Maroun said he personally feels that if county legislators don’t institute a bed tax now, it’s something they will have to consider in the future.

Saranac Lake support

Brownell and Van Anden also spoke at the Saranac Lake hearing, as well as Jim Murnane, owner of the Best Western Mountain Lake Inn on Saranac Lake’s Essex County side.

Murnane agreed with Brownell that Essex County’s bed tax has been beneficial.

“It’s been a home run in all respects,” Murnane said. “I don’t see how Franklin County could say no to this.”

Mary Gach, who runs the Ampersand Bay Resort, said she supports the bed tax as long as its proceeds go specifically to tourism marketing. She said she’s not sure a 5 percent additional tax would impact her customers much. She noted that she just returned from Manhattan, where fees and taxes are steep.

Jacob Kipping, assistant general manager at The Point resort on Upper Saranac Lake, said his business has shifted to supporting the tax. He showed up to the last hearing in Malone with a number of concerns about it.

Kipping said he’s still concerned, though, about contracts he already has with guests for the future. If a guest has signed a contract for a stay two years from now that agrees on a specific price, will he have to charge that guest the bed tax, therefore increasing that price? He said he currently has deposits for stays through October 2015.

Legislators said that’s a good question, and they told him they would look into it for him.

Kipping also asked about how much notice he will have when the tax goes into effect. He said that it will be simple to collect once he configures his systems to do so, but it will take some time to configure them. Legislators said there should be an active-by date in the legislation setting up the tax.

Kipping said he’s worked in Lake Placid and seen the good the bed tax can do for businesses, so he supports it.

Written comments

County board Clerk Gloria Valone said she has not received any written comment on the topic yet. She said she will accept them until April 18. That’s the day the board plans to hold its final hearing at 6 p.m. in Malone.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or