Dispute over Country Inn’s taxes heats up
Stephanie Rebant of Berkeley Cottage Rentals and Jeanne Mozier of the Star Theatre, both representing Travel Berkeley Springs (TBS), confronted the Town of Bath Mayor and Council last Tuesday about the unpaid hotel–motel taxes owed the town by The Country Inn.
Travel Berkeley Springs receives one half of all lodging taxes collected and uses the funds to promote local businesses and local tourism.
Heated words were exchanged by both sides with seemingly no resolution to the ongoing situation in sight.
“After three years of meetings and communications with the town about the continual irregularities in your collection activities regarding the hotel–motel tax, Travel
Berkeley Springs is compelled to officially notify you that we consider these actions and inactions to constitute a dereliction of your duty as elected officials legally responsible for the management and enforcement of the occupancy tax,” Rebant said, reading from a prepared statement.
“This situation is simply unacceptable,” she said.
Rebant pointed out The Country Inn has not made any tax payments in six months and is more than two months overdue in court ordered payments of back taxes.
She said TBS requests the council takes action on this contempt of court and impose an injunction on the Inn and seek criminal penalties as outlined in town ordinances.
“We plan to attend the next council meeting on May 1 where we expect to receive an update on what actions have been taken to bring this ongoing issue to an immediate resolution,” Rebant said, still reading from the prepared statement.
“So let me get it clear about what you want us to do. You want us to close down The Country Inn. Say it, go ahead and say it,” Mayor Susan Webster challenged Rebant.
“We want you to do what your duty requires you to do which I have clearly outlined. And if that is to close The Country Inn to get them to obey the law, then that is what needs to happen,” Rebant replied.
Rebant said she has received complaints about the cleanliness of rooms and the
level of service at the Inn. “The Country Inn is not operating to the standards that we
want to promote in Berkeley Springs,” she said.
Get rid of tax?
Webster said she had instructed town’s attorney Richard Gay six weeks ago to place liens on the Inn’s properties as the next step in the civil legal process.
“I don’t agree that we have been derelict. We have done what we can. If you were sitting in our seats, you would see it differently,” Webster said.
Webster said this isn’t the first time the town or county has had problems with collecting taxes from previous owners of the Inn as well as problems with Coolfont on occasion.
“I have come to see this as maybe a tax that the council has to really think about. Do we want to do this at all?” Webster asked.
The town is not mandated by state law to impose the tax, but may impose a tax of up to six percent on the cost of a night’s lodging. The current tax is four percent.
“The town bears the brunt for, and the taxpayers of the Town of Bath absorb the costs of, administration, enforcement and legal fees,” Webster said.
“All to promote the tourism of Berkeley Springs,” Rebant countered.
“I know this is a bad situation. I don’t think anyone on this council will say otherwise.
“But it has got to the point where I have to consider is this something we want. Or do we let the businesses of the Town of Bath conduct their own business, collect their fees and spend their fees as they wish and not have the hotel--motel tax,” Webster said.
Rebant argued that tourism has greatly increased since the tax was enacted. Webster said she wasn’t so sure.
Rebant invited the mayor and council to look at neighboring towns that do not have the arts, festivals and events that the tax supports here and ask,
“Is that what I want Berkeley Springs to be?”
Webster then asked if TBS was still promoting The Country Inn.
“Yes we are, absolutely. And any claims that are made that we are trying to undercut them in any way are not true,” Mozier said.
She said TBS promotes anything the Inn tells them they are doing.
Mozier noted the Inn is prominently displayed on the TBS web site, on the dining page and spa page. She noted that TBS promoted and staged the recent water tasting event at the Inn.
Council to seek legal advice
“I am actually stunned to hear some of the things you are saying. This is a moral and ethical issue. Right now every other lodging place in the Town of Bath is paying this tax. This does not come out of their pockets. Every tourist who stays overnight in the Town of Bath pays this tax,” Mozier said.
“We understand that,” Webster said. She said she would talk to the county’s prosecuting attorney.
Police Chief Craig Pearrell cautioned everyone about mixing up the civil case with a possible criminal case.
“The prosecution at this point is probably going to say ‘You chose the civil side. You need to go back to your civil attorneys and do it that way,’” he said.
Pearrell said they are probably going to find out that until the civil case is resolved there is no criminal case.
Councilman Scott Merki suggested the council sit down with the town’s attorney and decide what to do next.
“Now it is starting to fester,” he said. Merki explained the council thought they had the situation resolved last October and November when the town did receive two back tax payments from the Inn.
“We are back to the same situation. We are back in this room arguing the same point all over again,” he said.
Webster said the council will consult with the attorneys and “figure it out.”