The Huntington County Council took steps on Monday, July 23, to force local lodging facilities to pay overdue taxes and to allow the formation of a community corrections program.
Many lodging facilities have been reluctant to pay the innkeeper's tax, which was enacted in 1994 and is the sole source of income for the Huntington County Visitor and Convention Bureau, HCVB Director Tina Bobilya told council members.
"The Visitors Bureau has had a long-term problem with the innkeeper tax and the collection of it," Bobilya said.
Income from the innkeeper's tax is used to promote Huntington County attractions with a goal of bringing more out-of-county visitors - and their cash - to Huntington County. Bobilya said that for every dollar spent by the Visitors Bureau, $5 comes back to local businesses.
Lodging facilities are assessed 5 percent of each room rental, and the tax is to be paid monthly. Huntington County Treasurer Brenda Hamilton said that in 2010, the county collected $121,739; the following year, the amount was about $115,000. So far this year, the innkeeper's tax has brought in only about $57,000.
The ordinance that established the innkeeper's tax lacks sufficient enforcement measures, Bobilya and Hamilton said.
"The old ordinance provides no way to force facilities to pay," Hamilton said.
"Sometimes, if they're not forced, they're not going to do it," County Council President John E. Hacker said.
The revised ordinance they proposed would allow the treasurer to order an audit of the books of any lodging facility that has overdue taxes or is suspected of not paying the full amount due. The Visitors Bureau will pay the initial cost of the audit; if the lodging facility is found to be in the wrong, the audit charges will be assessed to the facility.
If the audit reveals slow or inadequate payments, Bobilya said, a lawsuit could be filed to force payment or a lien placed on the property.
"Sometimes a hotel stops paying several months before it's sold," said Rich Najuch, president of the HCVB board of directors. "If it goes into bankruptcy or sells, there's no way to go after the new person."
A lien would allow collection of the taxes in cases of bankruptcy or change of ownership, he said.
"They should pay their fair share," Hacker said as the council voted 6-0 to adopt the new enforcement measures.
The council also gave its blessing, although somewhat reluctantly, to the establishment of a community corrections program. The program, being spearheaded by Huntington County Jail Capt. Steve McIntyre, would provide an alternative to jail for non-violent offenders.
McIntyre told the council that the Huntington County Jail - already bursting at the seams at times - is likely to become even more crowded as state prisons begin turning away inmates convicted of Class D felonies, the least serious category of felony. Those inmates will instead be housed in county jails.
A community corrections program would free up space for those inmates by providing alternate punishments - such as home detention and electronic monitoring - for non-violent offenders currently housed at the county jail. A work release center could eventually be included in the program, McIntyre said.
The state would provide nearly $200,000 annually to help fund the program, he said, and offenders will pay fees to be allowed to participate in the program instead of spending time in jail.
The program could be in place by Oct. 1 and would be designed to handle 20 to 25 offenders a month, McIntyre said.
Four council members - Shane Bickel, Kendall Mickley, Don Davenriner and Chris Hoke - voted in support of the program. Hacker voted no, Joel Harris abstained and Todd Landrum was absent.