Mentions of a “bed tax” increase in Marion County have small-business owners cringing over higher possible fees and tourism enthusiasts pushing for new ways to generate funds.
Bed tax, the charge levied on guests who stay overnight in a hotel, motel, trailer park, bed and breakfast or other short-term rental service, is set at 2 percent in Marion County.
Recently, members of the Marion County Tourist Development Council have suggested that 2 percent is too meager of a return, and are working to raise that value as means to boost tourism and jumpstart the lagging economy.
“We know that we need to increase the tax,” said Rus Adams, the council’s chairman. “And, at this point, with the assets in the community, we feel that we can increase it to 5 percent and build the tourism revenue.”
From October 2012 to July 31, Marion County collected about $863,000 in bed taxes, Adams said.
Jeff Bailey, a council member and the general manager at The Hilton, said that money goes toward promoting tourism.
He believes an increased bed tax will further benefit a struggling Marion County, and wants to focus development on attractions unique to the Ocala area, like equine events, or youth sports facilities. His hope is that an influx of tourists could create more jobs.
“The more people we can get here, that’s more money they spend in restaurants, more money they spend in stores, feed shops, tack,” Bailey said. “It’s a great deal of money.”
Members of the tourism council are still planning their presentation. Their next step is to hire a firm to conduct research on Marion County’s greatest attractions, Bailey said. That way, they can show how the money should best be spent, which goes a long way with politicians who fear being associated with an increase in taxes, he said.
“If you’re familiar with the phrase, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ that’s really what it is,” he said. “It would help the entire community.”
But for small business owners in Silver Springs and west Ocala, a higher bed tax is a different story.
Before Bryan Doherty and the owners at Motor Inns Motel & R.V. Park consider any kind of business endeavor, they first slice 8 percent off the top of their revenue.
It’s not put aside for cable, other utilities or cleaning services for the small business owners’ customers.
That 8 percent is bed tax, the total value owners pull out of their pockets at the end of the day. It’s only 2 percent that’s funneled back into Marion County, and another six is shipped back to state officials.
Doherty said the tax increase will create a vicious cycle for smaller motels that can’t compete with larger corporations.
“It doesn’t hurt the big chains,” he said, “because it doesn’t cost them any more to rent one room for one night than what it costs us.”
Doherty said a Hilton that makes $100 a night off someone faces less financial stress than his operation. Doherty sells a room at $32 for a single person. He said he gets by, barely — like most people — and most of his customers are old, disabled or have nowhere else to go.
If the county ups the bed tax, he’ll have to budget his resources even more, he said. He fears that he’ll lose customers.
“If they raise the tax, all they’re doing is hurting the mom-and-pop business. The little guy,” Doherty said. “Main Street is what built this country, but yet they’re trying to wipe it out.”
Silver River Inn sits on State Road 40. Near the motel entrance is a busted hole in the glass, and a Coke machine that reads: “Out of Order.” The pool, just left of the main office, is drained.
Roger Bhatia, one of the owners, said the motel has been nothing but trouble since he bought it about four months ago. Only seven or eight rooms are operational, he said. Most weekdays, no customers stop by the front desk.
Bhatia is opposed to a higher bed tax. It’s not just tourists who are affected, he said.
“We don’t like the idea because right now the economy is in bad shape. Even though the country’s unemployment rate is improving, Marion County is one of the counties that is running behind,” he said.
Bhatia said residents are already suffering from higher gas prices and the cost of food. One more tax could be harmful to those living on shoestring budgets.
“People who used to get by by living in a motel are downscaling themselves to mobile homes and trailer parks, which is difficult on them,” Bhatia said.
Angie Melon, 63, has been living in Ocala’s Holiday Trav-L-Park R.V. Resort for nine years. She recognizes that the county needs money, but said it’s not the vacationers who will pay the most for a higher bed tax.
It’s Marion County residents, particularly those living on the downtrodden SR 40, where decrepit motels line both sides of traffic.
“Here, the majority right now live year-round,” Melon said. “And the majority that live here have no education, nothing.”