By Carolyn Roy firstname.lastname@example.org (318-352-3618 ext. 219)
The Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission will request an audit by the La. Legislative Auditor to see if hotel and motel occupancy taxes are being collected properly as they relate to the tourist commission. During a meeting of the commission Tuesday evening, board members expressed their concerns about what they say is a lack of information from Natchitoches Tax Commissioner Jerry McWherter, particularly about taxes that McWherter did not collect on a $9.95 value added package charged to guests by at Chateau St. Denis Hotel from its opening December of 2016 to July 1 of this year.
Executive Director Arleen Gould said the tourist commission first notified McWherter in January of 2017 they believed he should collect the taxes on the package but he refused with no explanation. After McWherter refused to collect the tax for nearly 18 months, the board sought an opinion from the La. Attorney General. McWherter began collecting tax on the package July 1. The AG’s opinion that said the package was taxable and the tourist commission “must” attempt to collect the back taxes. Board chairman Lauren Sharplin said that McWherter’s explanation for not collecting the taxes was, “Because I said so.”
Sharplin and other board members are frustrated because of the lack of information from McWherter about the amount of the back tax or the number of rooms charged with the package. Hotel and motel guests are charged 4.5 percent for the State, 5.5 percent for the City, 3 percent for the tourist commission and 2 percent for a city TIF tax. None of those were collected on the value added package until July 1.
Board member David Guillet questioned if the Tax Commission Board had the authority to compel McWherter to collect the back taxes. He believes that the Tax Commission Board’s decision to authorize McWherter to hire a tax attorney in Shreveport to get an opinion was a waste of taxpayers’ money. As a result of the motion to contact the Legislative Auditor, Gould said she will consult with District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington for advice.
She will draft a letter requesting the audit and present it to the board at its December meeting. In a related matter, Gould said she believes that taxes collected on guests are incorrectly stated on the bill, or folio, since McWherter combined the City tax of 5.5 percent and the TIF tax of 2 percent and they are collected as one tax. Gould said she requested McWherter to notify hotels and motels to separate the taxes on the folios but he refused. Gould she that she then sent letters requesting the tax be stated correctly on the folios and hotels and motels began doing so. Gould said McWherter’s reasoning was that the City ordinance creating the TIF tax stated it was an occupancy tax.
The TIF tax is a tax collected on hotel and motel occupancy that is used as a City tool for economic development to fund capital improvements. David McGrath, owner of Church Street Inn, said that when he first opened the hotel, he made a mistake on tax collections but was corrected by McWherter who he said “collected the back taxes.” McGrath also questioned why the Tourist Commission, and not the Tax Commission, should be directed to collect back taxes in the Attorney General’s opinion. McGrath said there should be a “level playing field” for the businesses paying their taxes. In another matter, Gould had good news for the board. The commission received $104,000 from the Enterprise Fund. The commission receives the payment each year but it is usually distributed quarterly. This payment is for the whole amount which is good for the budget. Hotel and motel tax collections were up slightly in October. The commission received $29,898 after paying the Tax Commission a $10,123 administrative fee. That amount collected was $1, 454 more than for October of last year. Year-to-date, net collections totaled $337,322.
Gould reported on visitors to local attractions in October that included 2,198 to Cane River Creole plantations; 1,101 to Fort St. Jean Baptiste; 208 Los Adaes Historic Site; 186 to Grand Ecore Visitors Center for a total of 3,694. Numbers were not available for La. Sports Hall of Fame, Melrose Plantation, Alligator Park, Briarwood and the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery. The most visitors to the area continue to be from Shreveport, Houston, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. The Convention Visitors’ Bureau (CVB) hosted 14 tour operators Oct. 4 and the Preserve Louisiana Group of 30 people Oct. 26-27.
During October, CVB representatives attended meetings or events for: • Bicycle and Pedestrian planning committee •Christmas Festival poster reveal •Public Relations Association of Louisiana •Clementine Hunter’s House ribbon cutting •CVB marketing committee and board meetings •Holiday Trail of Lights in Alexandria •Cane River National Heritage Area Grand Ecore open house • No Man’s Land Committee in Vernon Parish •HMT program panel at NSU •Louisiana group tour •Hometown Productions interview The accolades or designations included: •The 25 Most Festive Towns by CarREntals.com •11 Best Small Towns to Visit for Christmas in the U.S. by TripstoDiscover.com •One of Louisiana’s 2018 Readers Choice Award winners by Convention South Magazine Year-to-date, 7,174 people have signed the guestbook.
Of the total, 485 have been international visitors. The CBV placed travel ads in Convention South Magazine, New Orleans Pelicans Playbook, Golf Louisiana, Louisiana Life Magazine, New Orleans Magazine, Baton Rouge Parents Magazine, Graham Group Programatic and AAA Southern Traveler. The CBV received 18,053 likes on social media in October, 1,618 Twitter followers and 1,904 Instagram followers in September. On the website, there were 58,816 pageviews and 13,881 new users.
Tourist commission members at the November meeting were Lauren Sharplin, Greg Burke, Jan Frederick and David Guillet. Karen Rawls and Mardy Summerlin were absent. Staff present in addition to Gould was Kelli West.