After 4 years, Tourism and Tax Commissions still at odds

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By Juanice Gray, Jgray@natchitochestimes.com

Who has authority over what?

How much revenue was lost?

How can it be collected and who collects it?

What is our next course of action?

Those questions remain basically unanswered after almost four years of back-and-forth between the Natchitoches Tourist Commission and the Natchitoches Tax Commission. The dispute is concerning the collection of occupancy tax on the $9.95 “value added” fee tacked onto every room at the Chateau St. Denis Hotel since it opened in November 2016.

The Tourist Commission met Tuesday to further discuss the matter, with the crux of the meeting centering around the most recent Attorney General’s Opinion on the issue. Yes, most recent because the AG has been solicited twice in an attempt to settle the dispute.

The first opinion determined authority and the second addressed sharing of information between the entities involved. The Tourist Commission receives 3 percent of the Occupancy Tax levied on hotel/motel stays. As a political subdivision of the state, they are the taxing authority for the occupancy tax. Arlene Gould is Executive Director.

The Tax Commission is the tax collector and is also responsible for distributing the tax to the proper entities. Administrator is Jerry McWherter.

Tourist Commission members stated their frustration with the ongoing problem. They said numerous attempts to resolve the issue, including a letter of demand from the District Attorney, two in-person meetings and opinions from the Attorney General had not yielded results. On Jan. 4, 2018, the tourist commission sent a Request for Public Records letter to McWherter. The letter was received by the Natchitoches Tax Commission office Monday, Jan. 7 with a return receipt. On Jan. 9, Attorney Richard Barham notified Gould that he was retained by McWherter to assist in responding to the request for information. He is still their attorney of record.

Gould requested such information as how much money was collected on the value added package, the amount of TIF tax collected for the City, the number of rooms rented in hotels, Air B&Bs and campgrounds and other information that would help her gauge how much the tourist commission would receive. In June of that year, a letter requested an opinion from the State Attorney General on whether the value added package was taxable. That opinion, issued Oct. 22, 2018, says a “value added package” is taxable and the Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission must attempt to recover any unpaid taxes provided “the cost of recovery exceeds the value of unpaid taxes.”

The hotel did not pay tax on the package from the time it opened in November or December of 2016 until July 1, 2018, nor did the Tax Commission collect the tax.

The tourist commission states they can’t collect as ordered by the AG if they don’t know how much to collect. That information must be provided by the tax commission administrator. The issue of privileged information was cited as a reason by Barham for non-disclosure.

Over a year later, in November 2019, during which time still no taxes were collected, Natchitoches Parish District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington sent a letter to the Attorney General on behalf of the Tourist Commission attempting to resolve the matter and answer questions regarding the tourist commission as the “taxing authority” for occupancy tax.

That opinion, dated Aug. 18, 2020, clearly states that “As a mandatary, the tax collector must provide the principal, the taxing authority, with tax information collected on its behalf.” It further stated that the tax collector may disclose to the taxing authority information collected on the tourist commission’s behalf. This information is otherwise privileged, but since it is collected on their behalf, they have the right to the information. The AG also stated that should the tax collector not pursue collecting the taxes owed, the tourist commission can do so by utilizing a summary proceeding.

Since the collection issue began, the Tax Commission board has seen several changes. It now consists of Julie Lockhart, Parish President John Richmond, Mayor Ronnie Williams, Debbie Miley and school board representatives Lee Waskom and Pat Roque. Tourist Commission board members are Chairman Lauryn Sharplin, Vice-Chair David Guillet, Jan Frederick, Richard Johnson, Mardy Summerlin, Landon Amberg and Ricky LaCour.

Hopes are the new boards will work together to resolve the long standing disputes. “It is no longer about the money,” Tourist commissioner Summerlin stated Tuesday.

“We just don’t want this to happen again.” Gould has requested to be on the tax commission’s Oct. 21 agenda.

Requests to McWherter for comment went unanswered.