By James Beaty
It may not be a question of whether the McAlester City Council asks voters to approve raising the city’s hotel/motel tax, but rather by how much and what to do with the additional money if the measure passes.
City councilors discussed the issue during their regular Tuesday night meeting at City Hall at the request of Ward 3 Councilor/Vice Mayor Travis Read.
Although the matter was not set for a vote Tuesday night, none of the city councilors said they were against the proposal. McAlester’s current hotel/motel tax is 4 percent.
However, not all were in agreement about how much the tax should be raised, or how the extra money should be spent.
In the end, the consensus was to call a public meeting or workshop to discuss the issue, and to make sure that all of the hotel and motel operators in McAlester were formally invited to add their input.
Read opened the discussion by saying he’d been considering the matter for some time.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for several years,” he said, referring to raising the current 4 percent hotel/motel tax.
“Personally, I think we’re leaving money on the table every year,” Read said. “I would like to see it at 8 percent.
“It’s a little higher than the Oklahoma average,” but it’s in line with surrounding states, he said.
Ward 2 Councilor John Titsworth spoke in favor of Read’s proposal.
“I agree with Travis,” he said. “We could look at upgrading the industrial park,” perhaps by constructing a ‘spec’ building, with the additional money, he said.
Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith said some cities have much higher hotel/motel taxes.
“Edmond’s at 14 percent,” he said.
Smith said he believes raising the hotel/motel tax in McAlester is reasonable, although he didn’t have a suggestion for the use of any additional revenue at this time.
McAlester City Manager Pete Stasiak said the current 4 percent hotel/motel tax funds are used for tourism and the Southeast Expo Center.
Ward 6 Councilor Jason Barnett said he’s 100 percent for economic growth, but he doesn’t want to put a burden on the hotels and motels in McAlester.
“I would like to see statistics about how many rooms are rented,” he said, referring to the occupancy rate among all the hotels and motels in McAlester.
Stasiak said he’s received information that 1,180 hotel and motel rooms in McAlester were already booked for May and June.
“For the first time, we’ve got two solid months of bookings,” he said.
Barnett questioned whether an 8 percent rate would be too high.
“Should we go to 8 percent? It’s quite a jump to double it,” he said.
Read said the hotel/motel tax is not typically paid by McAlester residents, but by travelers and visitors to the city.
“If you do any traveling, you know these hotel taxes are a part of doing business,” he said.
“I’m not saying no one’s going to stop at a hotel and ask what the hotel tax is — I wouldn’t,” Read said. He also said he had asked McAlester City Attorney Joe Ervin if there would be any restrictions on how the city could spend the additional money if the measure should pass.
“Your only restriction is by the language on the proposition the voters approve,” Ervin said. “That’s the only limitation.”
Ward 5 Councilor Buddy Garvin said when the city’s original hotel/motel tax issue had been brought up, a lot of hotel owners were concerned about it.
“I don’t see any here tonight,” Garvin said. “I haven’t received any phone calls.”
Garvin wondered if any rate increase could be brought back down if it looked as if it hurt local hotel/motel industry.
“If it does pass, I would like to see some thought as to how it could be spent,” Garvin said.
Titsworth added a comment about what he does during his travels.
“I’ve never asked what the hotel/motel tax is,” he said. “I just ask the rate.”
Mayor Steve Harrison added his input about the city’s hotel/motel tax.
“I believe it should be broader than it is now,” Harrison said. He also said, when deciding about the use of the money and the language on the ballot, any added revenues should have some connection to the fact that it would be paid by those using hotels and motels.
“I’m not sure if we put ‘city discretion,’ it would pass,” he said, referring to how another city designates its use of hotel/motel tax funds. The mayor said he didn’t want to put something on the ballot the people would turn down.
“Personally, I would like to get more public input,” he said.
Read said he had no problem with using the money for economic improvements, then mentioned a list of other possibilities, ranging from giving a portion to the Chamber of Commerce to building a water park.
Still, he wanted the city to get more input before making a decision.
“I would like to have input from the hotel managers,” Read said.
“I would like to have a workshop where hotel managers are invited by letter to attend,” he told Stasiak, as the discussion ended.
Since the matter had been set for discussion purposes only Tuesday night, city councilors did not vote on the proposal — but it’s expected to come up again at a future council meeting.
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.