Benton and Linn counties both continue to explore the idea of adding countywide taxes to the transient lodging taxes already paid by travelers staying in mid-valley hotel rooms and other short-term rental properties.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Benton County Board of Commissioners offered support for a staff proposal to add a 1 to 3 percent county transient lodging tax to the 9 percent room tax already charged by the city and the 1.8 percent tax levied by the state.

The Linn County Board of Commissioners beat their Benton County counterparts to the punch: Last week, commissioners Roger Nyquist and John Lindsey gave the go-ahead to county staff to continue developing a 3 percent transient lodging tax. That would be in addition to the state tax, and a 9 percent rate levied by the cities of Albany and Lebanon and a 6 percent tax imposed by the city of Sweet Home.

If you're scratching your head trying to think of the last time the Linn County and the Benton County commissioners were in general agreement on a tax issue, you're not alone. If one comes to mind, let us know.

But the idea driving the two proposals is basically the same: The commissioners in both counties are trying to figure out ways to get some additional money for their fairgrounds. And these transient lodging taxes are ways to do that, without sticking local residents with the bill.

The Linn County Fair & Expo Center never has broken even in its 22 years of operation, and most years requires $250,000 or so from the county general fund to balance its operating budget. 

In Benton County, the story is similar: The county's two-year budget calls for spending $343,000 each year for the fair fund. Of that annual amount, $120,000 per year is devoted to facility maintenance and $223,000 for operating support.

Now, before we continue, an important note: We are not among those people who believe that these county fairgrounds should be required to break even or even make a profit. That's an unrealistic expectation. And we think the benefits provided to county residents by the fairs and other events at the fairgrounds help to justify at least part of those deficits.

With that said, though, ever dollar the fair doesn't take from the general fund frees up another dollar that can be spent on public safety or road maintenance or another important county function.

In Benton County, money collected from the transient lodging tax could help pay for a proposed $2.2 million renovation of the Benton Arena, an idea Lynne McKee, the fairgrounds manager, has proposed to raise revenues. The money could pay for other improvements as well.

The story is much the same in Linn County, where the tax money could be used to tackle deferred maintenance work and other renovations at the Expo Center.

The idea of a countywide transient lodging tax isn't a new one in the state: According to data compiled by McKee, 11 Oregon counties already impose similar taxes. And if either Linn and Benton counties impose a 3 percent tax, that would be on the low end of the rates other counties charge: Washington County, for example, has a 9 percent tax.

There's a lot of work ahead in both counties before these proposals move forward, and a number of affected parties deserve the opportunity to weigh in. 

But consider this: Travel Oregon, the state's tourism agency, estimates that 30 million tourists visited Oregon in 2017, a 1 percent increase over the 2016. It marked the eighth straight year of tourism growth. You can't blame county officials for wanting to tap into that market — and if the money raised helps to renovate our fairgrounds, that could wind up making those facilities even more attractive to tourists. We're encouraged by these early steps forward. (mm)


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