Plumas County has new tourism group for part of area

With words and phrases like “compromise,”  “sticking points” and “we’re losing our will with this,” members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, the county administrator and representatives of the Feather River Tourism Association (FRTA) finally reached an agreement. A Tourism Improvement District now has a place in much of Plumas County.

Despite supervisors giving County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick direction to meet with the parties involved with the FRTA opportunity, it still resulted in a lengthy discussion Tuesday, July 18.

FRTA members stuck fast to their decision saying they were out of money and didn’t have the interest or energy to redo petitions already completed with those that now pay transient occupancy taxes and would be assessed the new tourism fee.

The session meant a lot of discussion, and fact checking, before supervisors finally felt comfortable enough to vote on three of Hydrick’s sticking points.

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The votes

Voting on what Hydrick described as sticking points, or what areas members of FRTA and county representative couldn’t agree upon, supervisors at length determined to vote on each of three areas.

Under the question of who is the authorized representative of the property in question, the board voted three-to-one in favor of allowing the existing petition FRTA members had property owners or agents sign. Supervisor Jeff Engel voted no.

Engel’s District 5 potential participants didn’t want to be part of the venture for the tourism district.

Supervisor Kevin Goss was not present.

The second issue involved the impact to the general fund. Hydrick presented a matrix on the potential impact to the general fund. That question on whether the general fund should be used was approved three-to-one with Engel again voting no.

And the final vote concerned who would be responsible for the collection of delinquent accounts? This vote, again three-to-one, gives the treasurer/tax collection the authority to collect.

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New software

Probably the easiest decision for supervisors was that of replacing the county’s outdated computer program with new software.

Plumas County Information Technology Systems Manager Dave Preston was in the boardroom prepared to quickly discuss the three options.

The county could keep the existing program, originally developed in the mid-1970s, and hope it lasted another year.

They could buy a software program that already integrated with the treasurer/tax collector’s program and would require little training for the staff. “It looked like it would be a good fit,” Preston said.

Or they could choose another software system.

Ultimately supervisors agreed with Preston that by purchasing a $25,000 software plan that will work with what exists is the best way to go.

Preston said that the new software they tried in the treasurer’s office uses the same learning logic that the staff is accustomed to. And it could be implemented by Jan. 1.

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Auditor Roberta Allen said that if the county is approving new software, this is the time to do it as the 2019-2020 budget is being worked on.

County administrator’s report

Hydrick said that county staff met, examined the issues and brought back options for supervisors to consider.

One of Hydrick’s sticking points fell under the petition wording. The document that members of the FRTA had property owners or representatives sign on behalf of the property owners covers only the payment of the TOT. The wording doesn’t include the new assessment and its rate.

FRTA member Susan Bryner of Chester said this hasn’t been an issue for counties that are doing similar things. She said that no lawsuits have resulted because the assessment isn’t mentioned in the petition.

The process also requires a meeting where all property owners involved in resorts, bed and breakfasts and individual tourist rentals that collect TOT, and would be assessed within the FRTA, would voice their opinions. Then they would have a specified period to respond. If 50 percent plus one vote against the assessment, then the whole tourism improvement district plan is off.

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Treasurer Julie White was also concerned about who was signing the agreement. White wanted the actual owners, not a representative, to sign the petition. She thinks the actual property owner needs to be fully aware of what is happening. She was also concerned about being able to verify signatures.

Discussion followed about sending out a property owner signature request document that would be authorized by a notary. This, it was agreed, was too cumbersome and would add the cost of the notary.

Hydrick also said in his report that there shouldn’t be an impact to the county’s general fund. FRTA agreed to pay the treasurer’s office 2 percent of the assessment brought in to cover that department’s new costs.

White argued all along that 2 percent wasn’t enough to meet her department’s costs. It was estimated that the assessment would give her $3,840, but she thought her costs would be closer to $9,000.

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The treasurer/tax collector department is a general fund program.

The new software would save the department time and money. The new program also determines if a property participates in the tourism district or not.

Bryner said the 2 percent is recommended for the first year and that rate could be negotiated for the next year.

Hydrick, who is now involved in the budget process for the county, said they needed to be careful with the general fund. “Even a few thousand dollars,” could impact it. “It’s our job to be extra careful.”

At the same time, Hydrick said the “county needs to show some skin in the game.”

At one point it was suggested that FRTA and the county share the cost of the new software program. But Hydrick told supervisors it made more sense for the county to pay for the software in full.

Apparently, there are several options for collecting the assessment. Hydrick said it was better to keep that with the county.

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Legal opinions

Plumas County Counsel Craig Settlemire referred to Proposition 218. This proposition distinguishes between a tax and an assessment. Under Prop. 218, tax changes must be voted upon. Assessments are not a tax. It’s not called a tax, but called an assessment to provide a particular benefit, according to Settlemire.

County counsel also stated that the county needed to maintain control of all taxes. It couldn’t delegate that responsibility to someone else. “That’s one issue that I had,” he said.

Settlemire said that he too was concerned about the cost of collections and that it could fall to the general fund for payment.

He said that the assessment revenue could be used for any legal challenge, “but there are issues with that,” he said.

Hearing from FRTA

Bryner reminded supervisors that the process of creating a tourism district has been going on for the past five years.

Now “it’s the 11th hour,” FRTA has moved forward with its plans in good faith, and issues were still being raised.

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Part of the work was in collecting the TOT petitions from all of the businesses involved in the assessment. That was finished and when Hydrick, following White’s concerns about property owner signatures, suggested a new petition form, Bryner said they didn’t have the spirit to repeat that process.

Bryner said FRTA members want to do positive things and make positive changes. She said she’s aware of the challenges that have occurred during this five-year process. And they want to add to the general fund not take away from the general fund.

But at this stage, at the 11th hour, “We’re out of money,” Bryner said. “We’re also losing our will with this.”

Bryner said that when county staff voiced concerns about how many people default on paying TOT and a similar assessment, she said she asked other counties about it. The feedback she received is that it is almost zero or less than 1 percent that default on paying TOT or the assessment.

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Addressing how much FRTA could pay the county next year, Bryner said there is a 15 percent leeway. Given 2017 numbers, there could be $28,000 that could be moved around. Her hope was that the 15 percent didn’t go toward administration or collection fees.

It’s been more difficult setting up the district without Eastern Plumas County’s participation. Bryner and her organization approached those businesses again and were shot down. “We did our best to make that happen,” she said. “That’s a political issue.”

“We’re done,” Bryner told supervisors. FRTA was ready to turn in their collected petitions June 15, but they’ve had to wait for further decisions by supervisors.

Supervisor Sherrie Thrall finally asked how many petitions they were talking about.

Bryner said they received 250 tax certificates and then they had to break them down into districts and addresses. That process left between 150 to 170, excluding Eastern Plumas or District 5. Most of the properties they dealt with are handled by property management companies.

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Supervisor Lori Simpson appeared frustrated about the process. She stated repeatedly that everyone needed to work toward a compromise.