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Gering council discusses tax proposals
March 28, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

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Two tax proposals came before the Gering City Council Monday night, but only one of them generated support among members.

The proposal generally supported by the council is a 4.5 percent hotel occupation tax that would help fund a proposed sports complex north of Five Rocks Amphitheater. Funds would also be used for improvement of existing venues such as the amphitheater and perhaps a hiking/biking trail through the community.

Mayor Ed Mayo said that if the occupation tax were adopted in Gering, Scottsbluff and Terrytown, it could generate about $272,000 a year from visitors.

The county is already charging a four percent tax on hotel room rates, generating about $330,000 annually. Those monies help fund tourism-related projects. In addition, the state has an occupation tax statewide to pay for tourism activities.

Mayo said the proposed city tax would go directly to the city without the state taking its share as a handling fee, as with other occupation taxes. The funds are also generated outside the city’s lid limit.

Mayo said that while other communities often level an occupation tax on their local restaurants, that’s not being proposed here. “Our restaurants get a high level of support from our local citizens, so an additional tax there wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Mayo also said he’s spoken with other mayors who believe a sports and entertainment facility would benefit the entire county and the region.

Mayo said he’s making the tax proposal now because of legislation pending before the Legislature. Designated as a priority bill, it would require any occupation tax or user fee proposal to go to a vote of the citizens. If passed by the citizens, the tax would fall within the city’s lid levy.

The Gering City Attorney is currently drafting an ordinance to implement the occupation tax. It will be considered at the next council meeting.

The tax proposal the council is still uneasy about is a three percent cell phone user fee that would be used to update the county’s emergency 911 system. The user fee would be added to cell phone bills in Gering, Terrytown and Scottsbluff.

Council member Jill McFarland, who serves on the city’s Administrative Committee, said the members agreed they need, in some form, to fund upgrades for the communications center.

“The committee agreed this was the way to go, but it’s not playing well on the street, maybe because a user fee is too ambiguous,” she said. “People are reasonable, but there just isn’t enough detail in this proposal right now.”

Council member Larry Gibbs said he would like to see financial information from the county as to what the communications center has cost over the last 10 years or so. He also wants to know how the state is distributing those taxes.

“People have to make budget choices and pick priorities in their lives,” McFarland said. “I think they look poorly on us when we say we’ll just add another tax.”

The communications center started with two agencies – Scotts Bluff County and the City of Gering. The City of Scottsbluff came onboard later. Today, the center provides communications service for 52 agencies.

McFarland said she thought the community would be more supportive of having participating cities and towns earmark budgetary funds to pay for the upgrade, rather than paying a user fee that would be collected in perpetuity.

Council members agreed they need more financial information from the county before approving a user fee. However, if the fee isn’t approved, some members wondered if the county would raise property tax levies to pay for the upgrades.

“I’m not necessarily against it,” Gibbs said. “I just want some more information. I’m not convinced a user fee is our only option.”

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