Proposed 2 percent hotel/motel tax increase supported by tourism officials

December 21, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A proposed 2 percentage-point increase in Howard County's hotel/motel tax, proceeds of which would be used to help boost tourism, is a key request in a slim list of local legislation being requested from Howard's state legislators in the General Assembly session that starts next month.

County Executive Ken Ulman said he is merely helping tourism and economic development officials, so the proposed increase from 5 percent to 7 percent, which would make Howard's rate match Anne Arundel's, doesn't do violence to his campaign statement last summer that he has "no interest" in raising taxes. Baltimore County charges 8 percent, while Baltimore City gets 9.5 percent on hotel rooms. Carroll is at 5 percent and Harford has no hotel tax, though the town of Aberdeen is requesting enabling legislation to help raise funds to maintain Ripken Stadium.

"The bottom line is the Tourism and Economic Development Authority are asking me to pass on this request to the delegation," Ulman said. "This is an issue I view a little differently" from a general tax increase proposal, he said.

If the bill is approved, county officials expect about $1.2 million in new revenue, which would be split three ways between the Howard County Tourism Council, the Economic Development Authority and the county, according to a Nov. 10 letter to Ulman from Richard W. Story, the economic development CEO, and Rachelina Bonacci, executive director for tourism. They said the money would be used to boost hotel room bookings and increase business in the county. Currently, the tourism council gets $423,732 in county funding, while the Economic Development Authority gets nearly $1.3 million.

Story said his agency would use the money to increase marketing efforts to attract corporate headquarters to Howard, which would boost business use of hotels. Bonacci said that with work about to begin on renovations for an expanded tourism bureau in the former post office building on Ellicott City's Main Street, she's ready to take tourism efforts up a notch.

"It's just a natural next step," she said, to convert Howard's small tourism office to a full convention and visitors bureau that can help sell more hotel room stays. She said that when the new revenue is dedicated to that use, "it's acceptable to the industry."

Peter Mangione, general manager of the Mangione family-owned Turf Valley Hotel and Resort in Ellicott City and a tourism board member, said he agrees with the move. "Nobody wants to raise taxes," he said, but the new money would allow the tourism council to "hire a sales staff to sell the county," instead of being a passive agency.

Three other local bills seek a total of $1.1 million in state bond money, while two other measures sponsored by Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican, seek approval for enabling legislation to allow the county to authorize whiskey-tasting events at liquor stores, and a separate measure giving permission for up to five slot machines at the Ellicott City VFW post. The bond bills would funnel $500,000 each in new state funding to development of Blandair and Troy Hill parks, while providing $144,000 for renovations to a group home owned by the ARC of Howard County.

Overall, the initial list of six Howard measures is far less than the roughly 20 local bills requested in an average year, but with legislators preoccupied with the state's $1.6 billion revenue gap next fiscal year, requests are limited. County residents will get their chance to tell Howard's 11 state legislators what they think at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at the George Howard Building.

Miller said his bills were requested by liquor interests and the VFW, though the slots bill would apply to any members-only veterans post in the county.

John Gorzo, president of the Howard County Licensed Beverage Association and owner of Glenwood Wine and Spirits, said Baltimore County allows purchase of a separate liquor-tasting license, and Howard County store owners want to follow suit.

"It's housekeeping," Miller said. "Baltimore County started the ball."

If the bill is approved, it would allow store owners to buy a tasting license so patrons can attend tasting events, but no one could get more than four free one-ounce drinks. Wine and beer tasting is already allowed, and Gorzo said he expects no opposition from restaurant owners, who last year won permission to sell bottled wine to dinner patrons.

Miller said the Ellicott City VFW off Old Columbia Pike wants the slot machines to help boost membership and attendance at the facility. Several Eastern Shore counties allow veterans groups the same privilege, Miller said. The post would not profit from the gambling, he said, and has agreed to donate its share of receipts to charity.

But the slots bill could face significant opposition, according to Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat.

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