Citing airport woes, McDavid calls for higher lodging tax

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | 10:16 p.m. CST; updated 12:11 a.m. CST, Wednesday, January 18, 2012

COLUMBIA — Mayor Bob McDavid is not satisfied with the current state of the Columbia Regional Airport.

While introducing a proposal to seek state-enabling legislation to increase Columbia's lodging tax at the City Council meeting Tuesday night, McDavid's attention quickly turned to the multiple inadequacies he sees at the airport.

"We have a very nice 1969 airport, with room for 50 passengers only, that is totally non-ADA compliant," McDavid said.

A city report proposes state-level legislation that would give the City Council authority, with voter approval, to increase the tax on hotel and motel rooms from 4 percent up to 7 percent. It suggests using the increased revenue to fund terminal additions at Columbia Regional Airport, in an ongoing effort to increase traffic and visibility of the facility, and to improve the city’s tourism economy.

A lodging tax rate of 7 percent would make Columbia competitive with Missouri’s major metropolitan areas. St. Louis and downtown Kansas City have rates of 7.25 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, according to figures provided in the report.

Columbia shares its current 4 percent rate with Joplin, Cape Girardeau and Chillicothe.

Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl questioned whether the language of the proposed statute would apply the rate to Columbia residents who rent rooms within city limits. The language of the proposed legislation indicates the increased rate would apply to "any transient guests at hotels or motels."

Columbia City Counselor Fred Boeckmann, who wrote the proposed legislation, said the language adheres to city ordinance definitions, and that he thought the tax would apply to anyone renting a room in Columbia, even if they were Columbia residents.

Increasing the lodging tax rate would bring in an additional $1.5 million annually, according to estimates based on 2011 receipts. The report suggests using that money to pay off bonds related to a terminal addition at the regional airport.

A design recommended by the Airport Advisory Board would nearly triple the size of the existing departure lounge and would cost an estimated $17.1 million, according to a report presented to the council at its Jan. 3 meeting.

At that meeting, both Mayor Bob McDavid and City Manager Mike Matthes said a larger terminal is necessary to attract passengers to the airport. The city secured a federal grant last fall to fund several improvements designed to increase traffic at the airport, including repaving its taxiways.

Proposed state-level legislation in the report would grant the council authority to increase the lodging tax, but only with voter approval. First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt, who said he received a phone call from an upset hotel owner before the meeting, emphasized that a public vote is a long way off.

"There will be quite a bit of public discussion of whether this is a good idea, and the public will decide and there will be lots of chances for input," Schmidt said.

The Missouri General Assembly passed a similar law in 2010, permitting Jefferson City to submit a lodging tax increase to voters, who approved a hike from 3 percent to 7 percent in February to fund the construction of a conference center.

Columbia voters last approved a lodging tax rate increase in December 1999, when the rate doubled from 2 percent to 4 percent. Boeckmann said the numerous amendments to state statute since that time, such as the Jefferson City adjustment,  inspired his call for clarifying legislation for this ballot measure.

"Although it's not clear, I think someone could make an argument that the legislative action has acted as a restriction on the power of charter cities to enact these kinds of taxes," Boeckmann said. "I think it would be helpful to have clarifying legislation."

McDavid asked the council to seek a state legislator to sponsor the proposed legislation in the General Assembly and to seek approval during the current legislative session, which ends in May. Schmidt said bringing the bill to legislators' attention sooner rather than later would be ideal.

"We better do it before they get bogged down at the end of the legislative season down at the Capitol," Schmidt said.

Though McDavid opened the discussion with criticism of the airport, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe questioned whether the revenue could be used for other projects.

McDavid said the language of the legislation leaves the spending options open for the council to decide.

"We can write this ordinance any way we choose, should we put it to voters," McDavid said.

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