Economy 

Tourism tax in trouble

Local hoteliers are working to thwart an attempt by the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) to tack a 75-cent-per-night room charge onto stays within city limits.

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"I think it's way too much," says John Burns, owner of the Clark Fork Inn. "It will hurt everyone's business."

The 2007 Montana Legislature opened the door for cities to create tourism improvement districts. Since then, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena have created their own, using money from the tax on new marketing campaigns to lure travelers.

According to Missoula CVB Executive Director Barbara Neilan, the estimated $500,000 raised annually in Missoula would pay for promotional materials and sales staff to push tourism amenities. So far, the Missoula Area Economic Development Council and some hotels, including the Best Western Grant Creek Inn, have voiced support for the tax in recent City Council meetings.

"The idea is to generate new moneys for Missoula, overall," Neilan says.

But budget motel owners argue the fee would affect them disproportionately, jacking up their per-room charge as much as 3 percent on top of a statewide 7-percent bed tax. They argue pricier competitors would barely see a blip.

"I think they should make it more equitable," says Al Arneson, owner of the Quality Inn Econo Lodge in Missoula.

Critics argue increased paperwork would also force business owners to perform additional administrative tasks, potentially ratcheting costs up even further.

As it stands, Missoula City Clerk Marty Rehbein reports that more than half of local hoteliers protest the tourism district, enough to meet a statutory requirement to halt the process. But the tax can't officially be derailed until the Missoula City Council revisits the issue during a yet-to-be scheduled meeting. That means hoteliers still have time to change their minds—and Neilan hasn't given up the fight.

"Never say die," she says.

Neilan says Missoula CVB is now examining ways to find consensus, including a possible sliding fee rather that a flat room charge.

"We are trying very hard to find an answer," she says.

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