Mar 17, 2020

Regarding Potential Change to Buncombe Occupancy Tax Allocation

Friends & Neighbors,

During this time of crisis and uncertainty, I urge you to consider emailing a letter about the allocation of our hotel occupancy taxes to our Buncombe County Commission, Asheville City Council, and Tourism Development Authority, copying to our NC Legislation.

UPDATE on March 19th: With so many service industry workers out of work, and to protect our locally-owned, small businesses, please request that existing hotel occupancy taxes be allocated to crisis response instead of reserving for future advertising spending as suggested this week. Taking care of the most vulnerable to our stagnant wages and rising cost of living while folks are out of work is more than just the right thing to do, it’s a way to provide much-needed repair in trust, and will be more lasting than a series of high-dollar adds if the TDA chooses instead to move through this time together.

Our local legislators have suggested that an agreement about the change from 25% to 33% of our $25-million in occupancy taxes being available for infrastructure could be considered in their short session. On March 7th, Chairman Newman and Mayor Manheimer presented to the Coalition of Independent Business Owners that a deal was close. It is not clear what that deal is, and now last-minute public comment is a greater challenge. The legislative session is currently scheduled to begin the end of April, but I don’t want us to forget to make our voices heard. Brilliant neighbors like Ami Worthen and Patrick Conant have written publicly, I’ll share my letter here, and you’ll find contact information at the end:

Addressed to: Chairman Newman and Buncombe County Commission, Mayor Manheimer and Asheville City Council, Stephanie Brown and Tourism Development Authority

Regarding: Potential Changes To Buncombe County Property Tax Allocation

Neighbors, I plead with you to consider that we are neighbors in community together here in our beautiful, mountain home. As I write this, I think of my family roots here, of my students growing up here and their families. I worry for our health care system and our community resiliency in the face of crisis. I consider the times our paths have or will soon cross. May we be kind and considerate in our shared humanity.

Our community is at a necessary moment of difficult conversation and reflection. 

It has come to attention that a rare and unique opportunity to change the rate of the hotel occupancy taxes in Buncombe County might be considered in this short session of the NC General Assembly. Our local legislators have suggested that agreement between the bodies addressed here will be key to both their support and statewide support. We are all familiar with the community conversation that has been percolating—the heat and pressure are palpable. 

As a homeowner, small business operator, artist, and community organizer, I am convinced that the agreement requested by our legislature does not reflect the true spirit of what “agreement” means. I am disheartened because it is clear that public participation in this process is not valued, but I’m also becoming aware that members of your own groups have been excluded from participation. I am ashamed because I know you are capable of inclusive leadership, and because not all my neighbors involved in this process are exercising or demanding full access and capacity. We need you, and you need us. We are in a health crisis but are not distracted from the connected impacts. 

As a member of the public, I have navigated community meetings, completed surveys, and offered comments when opportunity was available. I will state as clearly and kindly as possible here that I am beyond frustration at the lack of humanity afforded to myself and our neighbors. We’re exasperated because we tried, but this process was always designed for failure. 

Our community is past investment, we need repair. 

Our infrastructure is bearing the full brunt of the traffic from “heads in beds.” Allocation of 25-33% of our occupancy taxes is not enough to placate, and is now understood to be cold leftovers. The need to urgently address and advance infrastructure for resilient neighborhoods and community is upon us. The TDA has already allocated an additional $1-million in advertising funds this year and has expressed intent to increase again. We need better than the state-permitted split of 33% because we require more than a fresh coat of paint, we need to repair our foundation.

Our infamous Biltmore Estate was built when G.W. Vanderbuilt fell in love with these mountains as his mother visited to address health issues. Today, the majority of our visitors arrive in a car or on a plane then rely on cars for transportation, which means our industry relies on fossil fuels. This is unhealthy for us, our visitors, and our ecosystem. As a service-industry worker who has worked in minimum and supervisor wage jobs in the industry, welcoming guests in our music and art industries today, I can speak directly to the impact of the hospitality industry on our culture in this decade: We are in an abusive relationship with our tourism industry that only benefits a few with the most power, land, and finances, resulting in a shameful disregard and depletion of our natural and human resources. The cost is too great and harms our entire community. We need you to participate in a cultural shift.

We are capable of and deserve better, not mediocre. 

Infrastructure funding decisions are again being made by a few of you behind closed doors. We need you to be doing your best work, and this requires the sunlight of accountability. For our future generations, including yours, get off your horse and get in the muck with us. Your demands should be the same as ours:

  • First, because current legislation restricts use of funds, we need expansion of language for “heads in beds” spending to include funding of both capital and operations. Serious investment in our urban forest, fully-electric public transit, resilient food and water systems, deeply-affordable housing, and infrastructure are ways Asheville and Buncombe can lead and inspire positive change.
  • Second, we need to democratize the TDA membership and prioritize equity. With our homestay permitting and percentage of occupancy taxes associated, hospitality is not limited to Downtown Asheville because we are known for our inclusive, Southern hospitality county-wide. This must be reflected in future representation on the TDA, which means we need front-line service industry workers, neighborhood, and homestay representatives that bring professional and lived experience to the table at a percentage reflective of occupancy taxes with equity prioritized in funding allocation. That’s not going to happen until the people most impacted are at the table.
  • Most importantly, because the public engagement at every level has not been inclusive, transparent, or responsive, you must each now own the incredible losses of opportunity. The recent County efforts to invite public engagement were a step in the right direction. Because of this unique, last minute opportunity while we are not able to gather, an appropriate response looks like 100% of occupancy taxes for infrastructure repair, investment, and implementation over the next decade. That would be a cause for celebration!

You have broad, public support for courageous action.

It’s time to get out in front of this. You can lead through service to community, embody genuine hospitality, exemplify cooperative profitability through teamwork, ensure equity with integrity. Are you with us? Won’t you be good neighbors?

Sincerely, Kim Roney

Contact information for our NC Legislation, Buncombe County Commission, Asheville City Council, and Tourism Development Authority: Terry.VanDuyn@ncleg.net,
Susan.Fisher@ncleg.net,
Brian.Turner@ncleg.net,
John.Ager@ncleg.net,
brownie.newman@buncombecounty.org,
jasmine.beach-ferrara@buncombecounty.org,
anthony.penland@buncombecounty.org,
alfred.whitesides@buncombecounty.org,
amanda.edwards@buncombecounty.org,
joe.belcher@buncombecounty.org,
robert.pressley@buncombecounty.org,
AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov,
Stesbrown@exploreasheville.com