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Speakers wary of possible lodging tax election

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Speakers at a Pawhuska City Council meeting Oct. 13 voiced wariness regarding the idea of placing a lodging tax on the ballot that would affect bed-and-bath establishments. Councilors have talked about the possibility of seeking public approval for a 5 percent tax.

The council voted, 4-1, in a September special meeting, to have City Attorney John Heskett prepare a resolution for council action. The possible tax was not on the council's agenda Oct. 13, but public interest prompted comments on it from several speakers.

Michelle Loftis, a bed-and-bath operator, said she had spent a considerable amount of time on the phone, trying to learn details about lodging taxes in Oklahoma from state and local officials. Her conclusion was that no one understands lodging taxes in Oklahoma.

Loftis said she had spoken to others in the bed-and-bath industry and found that some said the issue needs a public vote, others said the timing is not good, and still others don't want the possible new tax. Loftis also said she found that people in the bed-and-bath business were less inclined to oppose a tax if the revenues would be used to benefit that business.

"I still have a lot of questions that are unanswered," Loftis said.

Loftis added that she thinks there need to be guidelines and stipulations if a lodging tax is adopted.

Kathryn Chambers, another bed-and-bath operator, said 2020 has been rough for the industry. She expressed concern that a lodging tax could be a complicating factor at a time when city government has been talking about trying to court a major brand-name hotel, and she raised the issue of what affect Washington County's revamping of its fairgrounds facility will have on event bookings for Osage County.

Victor Rooks, whose family has a bed-and-bath operation on 8th Street in Pawhuska, criticized the possible tax.

"It's a tax on the people that we're trying to attract to town, and that seems like a very bad idea," he said.

Kelly Bland, Osage County's tourism director, said she wants Pawhuska to profit from tourism, but she noted that some significant bed-and-bath investments in the city have been made by out-of-town investors. Bland cautioned the council about the potential fallout from asking voters who have no investments in the bed-and-bath business to make a decision that could adversely affect the financial situations of out-of-town investors.

Bland said the bed-and-bath business has grown in Pawhuska because of a conducive business atmosphere, and she added that it did not seem the council had sufficiently offered a rationale for why it wanted to ask the public to consider a lodging tax.

Councilman Steve Tolson, who has advocated for a public discussion of the lodging tax issue, acknowledged Oct. 13 that it is "a very touchy subject."

"This is something that this council is not taking lightly," Tolson said. He added that the council is not interested in "shoving anything down anyone's throat at all."

Tolson said that continued council consideration of the details of the issue was the reason why the lodging tax was not on the council agenda Oct. 13.

Other development and tax items

In other business potentially related to the development of Pawhuska, the City Council voted Oct. 13 to give Mayor Roger Taylor the authority to communicate with county officials about the possibility that city government could acquire an option to buy the Kennedy Building, which has been tied up in litigation.

District Attorney Mike Fisher, whose office has represented the Osage County commissioners in litigation regarding the building, confirmed to the Journal-Capital that the court has given the county permission to dispose of the building as it sees fit.

Additionally, city councilors Oct. 13 reviewed a new round of applications for the city manager job. Interim City Manager Tonya Bright said the council is planning to meet Oct. 27 to interview three candidates for the job. There were 11 applications, she said.

Bright said the council is also planning to meet at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, to discuss a Pawhuska Hospital proposal regarding a 1 cent sales tax.