Tie up the horses to the hitching post. Wow, in the last week the paper has been loaded with information about the proposed Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center (EOTEC) and what a great addition it will make to the Hermiston area. With any big project, where millions of dollars are going to be invested, I believe it wise to stop in the middle of the sales pitch and make sure all the values of the original idea and deal are still being answered and make sense.
The steering committee of the project have said no new taxes will be used to build the facility and the two main users of the facility (Umatilla County Fair and Farm-City Pro Rodeo) will generate enough income to operate the facility but not enough to build it. That is a great admission by the steering committee of the project and demonstrates that the steering committee is looking out for the long-term success of this endeavor.
Yet, it is hard to believe that a $21 million to $35 million multi-government agency project isnt going to need some sort of tax base to have continuity of operations for the life of the facility. All big facilities like this require constant maintenance, upgrades and care. It is just not enough to say you have enough money to operate. You need money to fix and improve down the road. Tucked deeply into the sales presentation of why the community should support this project are the simple words value-added tax (vat) or transient occupancy tax (tot).
A transient occupancy tax is levied for the privilege of occupying a room or rooms or other living space at an inn, tourist home or house, motel, RV site, campsite or other lodging for a period of 30 days or less. In Oregon, TOTs have to be used for something to do with tourism and EOTEC would qualify for this. To make the tax fair, it would need to levied to the entire county including Pendleton (they want their own center) so this would not be a political reality. So, the steering committee has suggested that just the west end of the county should have the TOT. That would mean Hermiston, Umatilla, Echo, etc.
It is safe to say that Hermiston hotels and restaurants will benefit much more from the EOTEC than Umatilla hotels and restaurants. Umatilla voters just voted to increase their TOT to 3.25% in May 2010. Would they be ready to pass another increase? Is it fair that Umatilla visitors pay this additional tax? Do Hermiston residents want to increase their TOT? That is a question that needs to be answered and I believe should be answered by the voters.
Under the current plan, the EOTEC will be owned by the County of Umatilla and controlled by our three commissioner set-up. That means any money generated from the facility could be allocated to other projects or departments within the county government. The money the facility generates would not necessarily be used for the facility. While the Umatilla County Fair Board produces and organizes the Umatilla County Fair, they have no state statute authority for budgeting and spending. The ultimate decisions rest with the County Commissioners. I believe the public may be better served if the EOTEC is made into its own special government district or independent operating agency with its own elected board of directors. These directors could be elected by the same geographic area the TOT covers. Smaller government is always better for the people. In addition, this set-up would help guarantee money generated by and for the EOTEC would be used for its success.
Letting the citizenship vote on any type of new tax and forming an independent operating agency will ensure that this new facility is developed with all the support it deserves. Just thinking of all the hitching posts that the equine center will have makes me excited for the first event.