Local business owners concerned about future of Country Inn
Town of Bath officials heard lively discussion about the state of the town’s economy on Tuesday morning, August 16, but no actual town business was conducted.
Mayor Susan Webster and two council members attended, but without Councilman Scott Merki, there was no quorum.
Ten people representing Travel Berkeley Springs (TBS) and local businesses addressed the town officials about problems with tourism and business due to the recession. Of main concern was the plight of The Country Inn.
Stephanie Rebant, owner of Berkeley Cottage Rentals and TBS president, spoke about what the organization does to market the town and county as a tourist destination. Their efforts have been impacted by the town council’s failure to collect back hotel-motel taxes from the Country Inn.
The Inn owes more than $42,500 in back occupancy taxes. Since TBS receives half of the hotel taxes collected, TBS has had to cut their advertising budget by a third, Rebant said.
She said it is illegal for the Country Inn to collect the taxes from customers and then not pay the town. She asked why the legal case against the Country Inn is taking so long.
Legal action continuing
Town Attorney Richard Gay replied, “We have a judicial system of procedures. And as some people who have been involved in the legal system know, it doesn’t move at lightning speed.”
Gay said a complaint was filed months ago. He has been taking depositions and recently filed a motion for a summary judgment.
Gay has asked Circuit Judge John Yoder to order the Inn to pay its taxes monthly. A ruling is expected in six to eight weeks.
“I understand the public’s frustration with the legal system, but unfortunately that’s the way it works,” he said.
In addition to unpaid hotel taxes, the Inn owes the town more than $13,400 for trash collection, street fees and police fees, according to court documents.
Star Theater owner Jeanne Mozier asked why this isn’t a case of criminal fraud.
Gay said he didn’t know if it amounted to criminal fraud, but it was certainly a breach of trust.
He said a lien has been placed on the property, and added: “The town will eventually get their money if the property has any value.”
Other businesses affected
“I have watched the Country Inn struggle and I fear for all the tourist dependent businesses in this town. If they go away, I don’t see how we will get through the winter,” said Patti Miller of Panorama at the Peak.
Mayor Webster said the Inn employs 40 people and has employed up to 70 in the past.
“There are many people who depend on the Inn for their livelihood, not only people in that building but there are many small shops and restaurants that might close up,” Webster said.
Barry White, the Inn’s new general manager, said, “The Country Inn has suffered through a campaign against the business due to the problems that have already been discussed here today.”
White said if one business in town is damaged, then all businesses suffer.
White said he is focused on moving forward to bring new business into town with a new management structure and more aggressive marketing.
“There are those, who for their own reasons, wouldn’t be unhappy to see the Country Inn fail. So I think everybody needs to ask themselves who would benefit if that happens,” White said.
“Are you going to start paying the taxes collected that you owe?” Mozier asked.
White said he couldn’t answer the question because of the legal proceedings.
“We understand the importance of the Country Inn,” Rebant said.
The Inn could resolve all issues by paying the taxes due, she said.
“I don’t think there is anyone in this room that wants to see the Country Inn fail, just the opposite, because it affects their livelihood,” Councilman Andy Swaim told White.
Whenever TBS officials raise the issue, it results in bad publicity for businesses other than the Inn as well, said Pete Moss, owner of Herb’s Auto.
“Let the legal system work. By chasing around this money, you are harming every other business in this town,” Moss said.
“I hope this discussion bears some good fruit. A lot of things were aired that we needed to hear,” Mayor Webster said as she brought the discussion to an end.