Merced Life

Debbie Croft: Hotel tax defeated but fiscal issue remains for Mariposa

This weekend, Mariposa inns, hotels and campgrounds are filled to capacity.

For the past six years in early November, Mariposa has hosted the Open House and Superbowl weekend in conjunction with the Trans Valley Youth Football League’s playoff games.

It’s become the last big draw for visitors before things quiet down for the winter. With local economy relying substantially on the tourism industry, every festival, concert, art exhibit and event not only gives exposure to the area’s diverse talent and rich history, it brings in necessary revenue.

This was also a midterm election this week. One local initiative on the ballot could have affected many Mariposa residents personally: a proposal by the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors to raise the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT).

Measure K did not pass. But if it had, by May it would have increased the tax on all guest lodging by 1.25percent – basically, $1.25 more on a $100 hotel room.

Resident Bob Kirchner admits the TOT keeps the town alive, in addition to a few local large businesses, such as Tavis Corp. and CKC Laboratories, Inc. But Measure K concerned him.

“County officials want it to pay for infrastructure. But if we hand them free money with no allocations, who knows where it’ll be spent,” he said.

Kirchner is retired, but you wouldn’t know it. His community involvement and a new position as assistant manager at a Mariposa hotel keep him on the go.

“Yeah, visitors can reach Yosemite easier from here, but other gateways have more to offer,” Kirchner says. “We need more small-scale industry, instead of depending so heavily on tourism.”

Mariposa County District 4 Supervisor Kevin Cann endorsed the measure. He has spent the past five years studying regional tourism and taxes.

“Mariposa prices for lodging and gas have proved to be recession-proof,” Cann said. “Natural disasters and government shutdowns have had more of an adverse impact than increased prices.”

He and others don’t believe an additional tax would have discouraged visitors.

“Throughout the state, the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau is known for its innovative and successful, research-based approach to determining who and where our potential markets are, and how to attract them,” Cann said.

He also notes that taxes on hotels in other tourist-heavy areas, such as Sacramento and Mammoth Lakes, are in the 15percent to 16percent range.

And plans for Measure K were already in place before we received news of Yosemite’s plans to raise entrance fees.

Cann cites statistics from 10 years ago when several national park entrance fees increased to $25. Visitor surveys revealed almost no change in the numbers or the demographics of visitors since then.

“Because of the constant tourist flow, Mariposa County hasn’t had to cut expenditures or staff due to the recent economic downturn, as did Merced and Madera counties,” he said.

But other sacrifices have been made. County employees haven’t had a pay raise in five years, and local road maintenance is long overdue.

According to Tuesday night’s election results, there were twice as many no votes as yes votes.

When Mariposa resident Claudia VanderBie owned a bed and breakfast a few years ago, guests did not appreciate paying an extra 10 percent in taxes.

“Taxes are high enough,” she says. “Tourists will look elsewhere for lower rates if Mariposa increases the TOT.”

Owner of the Best Western Hotel, Paul Patel, agrees.

“Instead of gaining the $1 million from the increase, tourists will take their business to Oakhurst (another Yosemite gateway community) in Madera County.”

He knows that most tourists shop online to compare prices and travel options.

And as one person in the hotel business put it, if tourists don’t stay in Mariposa County hotels, they won’t be dining or shopping there either – triggering a decline in jobs and revenue.

Marshall Long won the county Board of Supervisor’s seat for District 3, replacing Janet Bibby. While campaigning, he made his position clear on Measure K: “Raising the TOT will put our lodging industry at an unfair disadvantage in relation to nearby counties.”

He understands Mariposa has needs beyond the current budget.

“I would support it only after a thorough review of the budget,” he said of a TOT increase. “We should find ways to save or look for other funding streams, such as cutting services or raising the general sales tax.”

Now that the election results are in and the increase has gone down to defeat, we’ll have to see what funding solution Long, Cann and the other three supervisors come up with – hopefully one that benefits Mariposa residents while keeping visitors coming to our county.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. Follow her on Twitter @ghostowngal or email her at composed@tds.net.

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