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Don't be in a rush to spend proceeds from new hotel tax

January 12, 2001

Don't be in a rush to spend proceeds from new hotel tax



When the chad-tweezing judges had finally held their final hearings and issued their final rulings over the nation's electoral mess, one observer sighed with relief "At last Florida courts can get back to doing what they do best: Sentencing Darryl Strawberry."

If interpreting electoral intent of the Florida legislature is tough, interpreting the Washington County legislative delegation's intent over last year's hotel tax increase is nigh on impossible. Apparently they wanted to raise money for a significant, tourism-like enterprise, but they don't want the blame if said enterprise should prove to be unpopular with the public (read "stadium").

As has been mentioned here before, they want to be able to whisper in the ear of the tax hawks (if a stadium is built) "We just freed up some tourism money; we never dreamed they would use it for a stadium" while whispering to baseball fans and the business community (if a stadium is not built) "We provided money for the stadium, but the city and the county couldn't get the project done."

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Delegation members have remained artistically cryptic whenever the topic comes up. They are pleased with the legislation, but they are not pleased that local governments have talked of using the cash for something as pedestrian as sidewalk and alley repair. In other words, they love the puppy, but they hate that it's chewed up the entire living room.

What's obvious is that the delegation is doing two things: One, trying to put the best possible spin on an embarrassing law, sort of like slapping a smiley face on a nuclear bomb casing. And two, they are putting as much distance as possible between them and the law's results.

Since the delegation won't say exactly what it wants the money to be spent upon, it is up to local government to interpret. And in the end, it will be the local governments that have a chance of salvaging the law and turn it into something moderately meaningful.

Last week, County Commissioner Paul Swartz suggested an excellent plan: Set the money generated by the hotel tax increase (about $300,000 annually to the county) aside while we see how the stadium deal shakes out.

A year from now it may not be an issue because there may not be a team. New Suns owner Andy Rayburn, acting as casually as if he'd just bought the team off e-bay, said at a press conference this week he is undecided about the team's future. In follow-up interviews he said he didn't buy the team to move it and that he'll keep it here if it is financially feasible.

Of course without a new stadium, financial feasibility fades in likelihood. Rayburn seems like a decent person who doesn't want to rip the team out of our community, so it's my guess that he will make a good-faith effort to make the numbers work here.

We'll see. But either way, Swartz's idea of putting the hotel money into a lockbox for a couple years isn't a bad idea.

Even if you accept the delegation's revisionist history that the tax increase wasn't targeted toward a stadium, it seems the delegation had something big in mind, and something related to tourism.

I'm guessing the delegation wants to see a bold stroke, not the frittering away of the money for mundane expenses that ought to be coming out of general operating budgets.

When the Greater Hagerstown Committee asked the county for money to help widen alleys and generally spruce up the area around the new district courthouse, the administrator, somewhat cynically it seems to me, proposed using the hotel-tax money - money that was supposed to be used, not for back alleys, but for a major tourism showpiece.

If the County Commissioners allow administrators to get their paws on the cash it will be gone with nothing to show for it, and the county will have become as culpable as the delegation in this whole fiasco.

If the stadium becomes moot, there are two other major city tourism proposals that come instantly to mind - projects that would dramatically change the downtown cityscape. Those would be the Potomac Street Arts and Entertainment District and the Smithsonian-affiliated Civil War museum.

Any one of these three projects - stadium/museum/arts district - would be a major asset to the community. It's wishful thinking to believe the city and county can afford all three. It's probably not much more realistic to believe we can afford two of three.

But with funding from the hotel tax, one of these projects is eminently doable. And most likely, it will take the better part of two years to answer some key questions and figure out which it's going to be. Will the Suns stay in town? Will museum backers actually land the Smithsonian's Civil War collection? Can Potomac Street property owners work out a mutually acceptable plan for an arts-district facelift?

We won't know the answers for months, if not years. This is one time it makes sense to wait, pick a project, concentrate total energy on that project and do it right.

Meanwhile, let the hotel-tax revenue accumulate, as Swartz suggests. It's the one chance the county has to ultimately save the delegation from itself.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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