County seeks to hike occupancy tax

Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel wants to increase the tax the county collects from vacation renters and use that money to benefit Chautauqua Lake and other local lakes and streams.

This week, Wendel met with both the county Legislature’s Administrative Services and Audit and Control committees to discuss the proposal.

Individuals who rent hotels, motels, bed and breakfast establishments, and Airbnbs in Chautauqua County are charged an occupancy tax. That rate is currently 5%; Wendel would like to see that increased to 8%.

In order to increase that rate, both the county Legislature and the New York State Legislature must give approval.

Of the 5% that is currently collected, Chautauqua County uses 60% of it to promote tourism and 40% of it to enhance the county’s lakes and tributary streams. Wendel said he would like the additional 3% increase, if approved, to go the county’s lakes and tributary streams.

One of the reasons he is proposing this change is to have more money to protect and rehabilitate Chautauqua Lake. “I’m asking for an amendment be made to increase the occupancy tax to 8%. The additional 3% would be utilized in establishing a lake maintenance fund to help create sustainable funding for Chautauqua Lake,” he said at the Administrative Services Committee meeting Monday.

During the Audit and Control Committee meeting Thursday, Wendel clarified that the money would be eligible for all lakes and waterways. “This will not be Chautauqua Lake exclusive,” he said.

The amount of new money collected, if approved, is around $600,000 to $700,000, depending on how many vacationers rent in Chautauqua County on an annual basis.

Wendel said part of the reason he is proposing this is because non-residents will be the ones paying the extra money. “This isn’t a tax that will be borne on county residents,” he said.

It also doesn’t affect hotel rates. Users would be charged at the end of a transaction, like sales tax.

Legislator Susan Parker, D-Fredonia, expressed concerns during Monday’s meeting about how the money would be spent.

Wendel said the money is currently designated to a special account and organizations apply to that fund for various projects. That process would continue with the higher amount.

Many residents over the years have called on New York state to make improvements to Chautauqua Lake, since its technically the state that owns it. Wendel said although those calls continue to be made by our state representatives and himself, getting New York to pay for improvements is unlikely.

“It’s one of those things, there’s 6,000, 7,000 lakes … so to give money to each one in the governor’s budget is challenging,” he said.

Parker asked if the 8% was too high and discourage people from renting in Chautauqua County.

Wendel didn’t think it would. “I don’t necessarily believe it would deter anybody,” he said. “For example, right now if you have a $100 hotel room, you pay $5. If you have a $100 hotel room, you would have to pay $8. I don’t think that $3 is going to deter anybody from coming to Chautauqua Lake or the county as a vacation destination.”

Legislator Lisa Vanstrom said she believes the average occupancy rate nationwide is 12%. She voiced her support for the increase because she believes more needs to be done to Chautauqua Lake.

“If we do nothing, nothing will happen. If we support something good, that is not uncommon across the country, I think it will make a noticeable difference,” she said.

When the time came to vote in Administrative Services, Parker voted no, saying she needed more information. She also wanted more assurances that the money could be used for other lakes as well including Lake Erie. All other committee members voted in favor of it.

With regards to Lake Erie, Wendel noted that it has received $15 million over the last three years, but added that if there’s a project for Lake Erie that needs occupancy tax funds, the legislature would have the authority to approve it.

After the meeting, Parker sent an email to the county Chamber of Commerce to inquire if it supports the increase.

She also sent an email to all legislators, Wendel and various other county employees asking for details of how the current occupancy tax money is spent and asked for detailed plan for the new potential revenue.

At the Audit and Control Committee meeting Thursday, committee members there unanimously endorsed the proposal. There are no Democrats on the committee.

The proposal now goes to the full legislature for a final vote. If the county legislature votes in favor of the increase in occupancy tax, that legislation goes to the state legislature where final approval would be needed in order to take place.

While Wendel admitted there’s no guarantee the state will give Chautauqua County permission to raise the occupancy tax to 8%, he is hopeful because other places in the state have a higher rate than Chautauqua County does.

Wendel added that in some places, like Erie County, some of the occupancy tax collected goes to the general fund. He said he does not support that. “My commitment is and will continue to be, that 100% of this funding goes back to the industry — travel/tourism and our lakes and waterways,” he said.

Wednesday’s legislature meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. At that meeting Wendel will be giving his annual State of the County address and said he will offer other plans to fund and improve Chautauqua Lake.


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