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September 20, 2017

9/12/2017 7:29:00 AM
Finance committee continues room tax discussion
Concerns raised about transparency

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter


The city of Rhinelander finance, wage and salary committee revisited the subject of its accommodation (room) tax ordinance last week, a month after alderman Mark Pelletier surprised the group with a draft document outlining potential revisions to the ordinance as well as the news that the city's room tax contract with the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce and the town of Pelican had expired at the end of 2016.

Following Pelletier's surprise announcement Aug. 8, the committee requested time to review the proposal and investigate the status of the contract. Pelletier told the group the proposed revisions were generated during a meeting several years ago between representatives of the city and the chamber of commerce. However, the changes were never brought forward, he said.

Rhinelander's 5.5 percent room tax is levied on businesses who rent hotel rooms and other lodging.

The funds are used for tourism marketing, although the city also uses some of the money to pay for lifeguards at Hodag Park and for the Pioneer Park Historical Complex.

As the panel began to review the potential changes, alderperson Sherrie Belliveau objected to the elimination of the administrative fee the city is paid in exchange for keeping track of the money.

"We charge everyone an administrative fee except the airport and the library," Belliveau noted.

Alderman Alex Young said state statutes now prohibit the city from charging an administrative fee.

"There are a couple of moving parts here," Young said. "Number one, you got the contract between the city and the other parties that deals with this that I guess is expired. And number two, you got our actual ordinance that spells out who these representatives are."

He said he met with some representatives from the chamber that morning and they were adamant that the changes in both the ordinance and contract should spell out that the room tax committee is not a chamber committee.

"This is a city committee appointed by the mayor as the tourism commission, which is talked about in the statute. And if that's true, I do have the ongoing concern that I don't see the financials, I don't see the minutes and I don't see the agendas. They are not on the City Hall calendar, they are not sent out by email like any other city committee," Young said. "And that kind of bothers me that I'm making decisions on things where I don't get to see the information behind it. It may be working really well, but it's tough for me to see that if I don't see the financials, the minutes or the agendas."

Belliveau questioned why the chamber is not responsible for posting agendas and handling minutes.

"Because the room tax committee is not a chamber committee," Pelletier replied. "You'll even note that in other spots this was listed as a chamber committee."

That remark led to a discussion on the need for the room tax committee to be more transparent.

"They (the chamber) has kind of thrown this back on the city saying it's not the room tax committee's fault I'm not seeing this stuff," Young said. "It needs to be fixed so that it is all treated the same and we (alderpersons) all get that information."

Young said he understands that the room tax is a tax on businesses that rent lodging to market those institutions, but it is still a tax imposed by the city and the alderpersons should know what is going on with those funds.

Pelletier agreed the public has a right to know how that tax revenue is being spent.

"It's ours so we should be able to put our noses into it to see where everything is going," he said. "And it (the changed contract) forces that issue."

"I think it has to be this way because it's anyone who sits on this committee whose butt is on the line if something goes wrong and someone decides to report us for violating the open meeting law," Belliveau added.

City attorney Carrie Miljevich said the statute is clear that the room tax committee has to be a function of the city.

"The very first line is 'a room tax committee is created by one or more municipalities,'" she read from the statute.

Young pointed out that the room tax committee has always met at the chamber offices, and he has no problem with that as long as the location is accessible to the public.

"My issue is access to the information and knowing what the heck is going on over there," he said. "This needs to be looked at with the contract and establish in that contract who is going to be responsible for making sure these things get posted and distributed and sent out."

Pelletier said he and mayor Dick Johns are members of the room tax committee and the chairperson is chamber executive director Maggie Steffen.

Both Young and Belliveau said Steffen should be responsible for making sure all requirements of the open meeting laws are followed and spelled out in the contract.

Pelletier also noted that some of the proposed changes in his draft include replacing the Downtown Rhinelander Inc. director with a member of that organization, or dropping the requirement that the chamber treasurer has to be in attendance.

Loosening the required members' titles should eliminate a problem the committee has had in the past of not being able to reach a quorum in order to do business.

Another change would formally give the mayor a vote on the committee. The position was previously listed as an ex post facto member.

Johns noted he has been allowed to vote at recent meetings.

"There are some improvements that can be made to this whole thing," Pelletier said. "And at the same time, they all need to be presented to us (the city) because it is our committee."

Belliveau asked if there was any way to ensure all businesses required to charge the tax are complying.

Interim city administrator Keith Kost said the Department of Revenue administers the collection and enforces compliance.

"May I suggest to you that you really need your contract rewritten and that you bring this back next month and let Carrie sit down with Maggie and bring you a proposed contract that matches the new law," Kost added.

"I will need the expired contract. Is it in here, did I miss it," Miljevich asked. "Does Val (Foley, city clerk) have it?"

"I think she was looking for it earlier today," Young said.

"I don't know if you'll find one,"" Kost observed. "We looked."

"Really? Then I'm going to start looking because I'm sure I've got one," Pelletier interjected. "I'm positive, it might take some time, but I'm positive I've got one."

As soon as a copy of the expired contract is located, Miljevich and Steffen will start work on a new one.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernewsonline.com.





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