A chance to help emergency service workers
On Tuesday, March 5, Mc-Intosh County voters will go to the polls to vote for their preference in the Presidential Primary County commissioners hope that an important question on the ballot will not be overshadowed by the importance of choosing a presidential candidate.
The question is: shall the county be authorized to levy and assess a county lodging tax of 5 percent.
The answer to that question could have far-reaching ramifications – perhaps more so than who the county chooses for its presidential candidate.
The question will have a direct impact on the cashstrapped county’s income.
“(County Clerk) Deena Farrow, (County Treasurer) Betty Whisenhunt and myself, we’ve been putting the word out by going to different meetings – several places, like chambers of commerce, GOP county meetings; cattlemen’s association; county fire department meeting,” said District 2 County Commissioner Monty Grider.
The word they are putting out is that the lodging tax will be a tremendous help to the county’s emergency services, and also help the county’s growth.
Money collected for lodging taxes outside the city limits of Eufaula and Checotah will be divided several ways.
Fifty percent will be used for public safety. Of that amount, 25 percent will go to deputy sheriffs, 25 percent to jailers, 25 percent to dispatchers and 25 percent to rural fire departments.
Of the remaining 50 percent of the lodging taxes collected, 25 percent will go towards marketing McIntosh County to attract more visitors – this includes an anti-litter initiative and 25 percent will go to the county government.
“Right now, we aren’t sure how much we might collect,” Grider said. “It could be $1 or it could be $1 million.”
With a 9 percent lodging tax, Eufaula has collected $166,000 in the past year.
Checotah doesn’t have a lodging tax.
Farrow emphasized that the countywide lodging tax will not impact Eufaula’s own lodging tax, nor will the county collect a lodging tax in Checotah.
The county lodging tax impacts only lodging outside the incorporated city limits of Eufaula and Checotah.
“And we can’t collect taxes on Corps of Engineers property,” Farrow said.
Among lodging facilities that would pay the tax are hotels, motels, yurts, short-term overnight rentals, resorts, cabins, recreational vehicle spots and bed & breakfasts.
Grider noted that visitors come to the county and spend time here, which puts a financial strain on emergency services.
Because the county is at the maximum it can tax, it has to turn to other resources for income. A lodging tax is an obvious answer. It’s a painless way to offset the financial burden imposed by visitors and it doesn’t cost locals anything.
“Folks that come in on weekends – some use dispatchers, jailers, deputies, fire departments – they utilize these services, and it taxes our emergency services, causing more work. This is just a way to help pay for those services,” Grider said.
He said this will help in holding onto deputies and dispatchers, where there is a notoriously high turnover rate.
The lodging tax could help in pay raises for the emergency personnel.
“This will help us in our retention rates for deputies and dispatchers. There’s quite a bit of turnover. Other agencies – like the highway patrol and the Creek nation – offer substantially more money than what we offer,” Grider said. “We’re one of the poorer counties in the state.”
He said dispatchers here make $13.50 an hour, deputies about $17.50.
“We can’t compete with other agencies on the budget we have,” he said.
Farrow said law enforcement always carries the biggest budgets.
“They work 24-7,” she explained.
Farrow said the issue seems to have widespread support among the groups she has spoken to.
“Two or three people said they were opposed, but they are opposed to taxes of any kind,” she said.
Grider said he would like to have asked for more than 5 percent, “but that’s the maximum we can get because of our county population. With less than 250,000, the most we can ask for is 5 percent.”
He also would like to have been able to turn to the state for financial assistance.
“We’re maxed out at 2 percent on sales taxes. We don’t want to tax people. We would love to get money from the state to cover these expenses.”
Farrow said the state keeps putting additional requirements on training officers and equipment they require.
“But they don’t give them any more money. It strains the funds,” she said.
If the question passes, collection by the Oklahoma Tax Commission will begin on July 1. The Commission will then pass the funds along to the county.
In January, in Pittsburg County, voters turned down a request by county commissioners for a 5 percent lodging tax, similar to the one being proposed in McIntosh County.
However, on the same ballot the commissioners asked for a 1 percent increase in the county sales tax, which may have colored the outcome of the vote.
Muskogee County passed a 5 percent county lodging tax in 2016.
Cherokee County passed a 4 percent county lodging tax in 2021.
A dozen other counties around the state have county lodging taxes.
Grider said in developing the McIntosh County proposal, they looked to Cherokee County for advice.
Gena McPhail, director of tourism with the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce, said of the dozen counties with lodging taxes, Cherokee County is the only one that gives 75 percent back to the county for beautification.
Grider said if anyone has any questions about the issue, they can call him at the county barn, 918-689-5459, or Deena at the courthouse at 918689-3375.