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Groups Plot New Strategy For Revised Tourist Tax

Groups Plot New Strategy For Revised Tourist Tax

BY CONNIE LEWIS

As Yogi Berra might say, the push by a firefighters’ union to restructure the most recent proposal to raise the tax the city charges visitors to stay in area hotels is “d & #233;j & #341; vu all over again.”

In April, a trio of San Diego City Council members proposed raising the tax 2.5 percent to 13 percent to provide additional funding for fire and police protection in the face of the current budget crunch. The City Attorney’s office has been asked to draft language to put that measure on the November ballot.

But talks between the San Diego City Firefighters. Local 145 and a local hotel group could result in rounds of negotiations on the intent of the measure. Last year, before an initiative to raise the transient occupancy tax, or TOT as it’s called, went on the March ballot. It did not pass & #184; although it won more than 60 percent of the vote.

“We have met with members of the Lodging Industry Association,” said Johnny Perkins, director of government affairs for the firefighters’ union.

While firefighters and police departments are earmarked as equal recipients of the estimated $27 million in additional funding the proposed TOT hike would bring, Perkins said the union fears that an opposition campaign by hoteliers could result in the measure’s defeat unless there’s something in it for them. To pass, it will also need the support of the entire City Council and Mayor Dick Murphy, he added.

“Discussion is revolving around how you put a ballot measure in front of the voters that they’ll support, crafting something that meets the needs of police and fire and at the same time addresses economic development and job growth in the visitor industry,” Perkins said.

He said plans have not been worked out on how that might be achieved. But he did say, “I think there would be something on the table to give money to ConVis, but not tie the hands of government.”

Last year, the union joined forces with the San Diego Lodging Industry Association to support the March TOT initiative , endorsed by both the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association , to hike the TOT by 2.5 percent and lock in set funding for ConVis. However, an 11th-hour campaign by a statewide Republican committee , to which hotelier Doug Manchester donated $49,900 in February , was viewed by hoteliers as one of the main reasons it failed. Manchester developed the Downtown Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel and other properties in the area.

The March initiative captured 61.4 percent of the vote, but needed 67 percent for passage. Political analysts also blamed its failure on the fact that Mayor Murphy did not support it, and that voters were confused over whether they were being asked to increase funding for public safety or tourism marketing.

Manchester, reached on his cell phone in New York, said he was “out of the loop” concerning recent developments on the proposed ballot measure. But before cutting the call short, he did say he opposes any increase in the TOT, as he thinks it would result in a decline in the hotel occupancy rate.

However, Perkins said the firefighters’ union and lodging industry officials plan to seek Manchester’s support.

They also intend to call on Murphy and individual council members, including the three , Donna Frye (District 6), Toni Atkins (District 3) and Michael Zuchhet (District 2) , who proposed the recent TOT hike solely as a means to increase funding for public safety infrastructure.

Perkins admitted that trying to get more funding for tourism marketing into the proposal might be a tough sell.

“We’d like to get it to the November ballot, but if the proposal does not make sense to everyone, then we’ll wait until such time as it does make sense,” Perkins said. “We’re not going to give up on this.”

Michael Simonsen, Frye’s chief of staff, said she is of the opinion that a measure to increase the tax should be aimed solely at public safety to avoid confusion at the polls. But he also said Frye is open to discussing the needs of the lodging industry.

Jeff Gatas, Atkins’ chief of staff, said she anticipates “an ongoing dialogue to put something on the ballot.” But he declined to be more specific.

“As the ex officio member on ConVis’ board, she is very conscious of the importance (of the TOT) to tourism industry, so I think any conversation we’d have would be related to looking out for them,” Gatas said.

Murphy, who has remained mum on the subject, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

For fiscal 2005 starting July 1, San Diego City Manager Lamont Ewell has proposed a 21.5 percent cut to ConVis’ budget, which would result in a loss of $2.7 million. Other TOT recipients were recommended to receive 10 percent cuts.

ConVis spokesman Sal Giametta said the bureau has not been involved in any discussions pertaining to the latest TOT proposal, and he doesn’t know what position it might take.

Mike McDowell, executive vice president of the lodging industry association, could not be reached for comment.

The city manager’s proposed budget of $2.45 billion for fiscal 2005 includes $10.5 million for ConVis. Last year, ConVis operated on a budget of $14.9 million, of which $12.5 million , a cut of 10 percent from the year before , came from city allocated TOT funding. The remainder of ConVis’ budget came from other sources, including membership dues.

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