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Harford could tie its hands by restricting use of room tax money [Editorial]

A couple of points are worth making as the Harford County Council prepares to consider legislation that would collect taxes from people staying overnight in hotel and motel rooms, not the least of which is the money collected by the county shouldn't be bound by local law to go toward specific ventures.

The legislation before the council, however, requires that tax money secured for the county be "dedicated to funding tourism."

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Such a restriction means the government will end up spending whatever tax money it collects on promoting tourism, regardless of how much money is collected and, more importantly, regardless of whether a particular tourism promotion is something that should be paid for by a government entity.

The state authority to allow a room tax to be levied in Harford County — which is one of the few places anywhere that it's possible to stay overnight in a commercial lodging operation and not pay some sort of local tax — was lobbied for heavily by people whose goal was to see room tax money used to promote tourism. The promotion of tourism is fine, however, legislating that all tax money from a particular revenue source be dedicated for a single enterprise such as tourism promotion is a bit short-sighted. While promoting attractions in, and within driving distance of, Harford County is a good idea, it isn't necessarily the only good idea that should benefit from any increase in government revenue brought about by the tax.

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For example, the people who stay overnight in rooms in Harford County put strains on local services, notably police, when they experience anything from having their cars hit in parking lots to when they are the victims of more sinister crimes. Their vehicles also put strains on roadways and, in places where there are a lot of hotels, add to congestion at key intersections. Dealing with such issues costs money, though to date, the permanent residents of Harford County have been covering the costs. If restrictions are in place that require room tax money to be spent exclusively on tourism promotions activities, the county's permanent residents will continue to subsidize local lodging enterprises.

And there's also the key reality that tourism promotion directly benefits local motel and hotel owners. Indeed, it could be argued that a room tax fund used exclusively for tourism promotion is nothing more than a government-run advertising campaign to benefit owners of lodging facilities.

There is absolutely good reason for Harford County to start spending more money promoting its tourism opportunities, starting with local access points to natural wonders like the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, but other costs associated with having visitors stay at the county's motels and hotels also need to be considered.

Another issue that has come up in association with the legislation being considered by the county council is the allocation of tax revenue to Aberdeen and, to a much lesser extent, Havre de Grace, based on the number of commercial lodging rooms in each city. Bel Air is angling to secure a share of the new revenue stream, even though there are no motels or hotels within the town's borders.

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Going back more than two decades, attracting a hotel with a conference center to the county seat was a high priority for members of the board of town commissioners. A fair amount of effort, and probably a little bit of town money, were spent on trying to figure out how to attract a hotel company to open a facility in town.

Nothing materialized and the reason is obvious when the big picture is considered: Almost all the hotel and motel rooms in Harford County are within a figurative stone's throw of both I-95 and Aberdeen Proving Ground, while Bel Air, hardly a destination for tourists, long-distance travelers or people working on post, is at the end of what could be described as the Route 24 cul de sac off I-95. In short, if there were a market for overnight lodging in Bel Air, some enterprising person would already have opened a motel or hotel.

How this relates to the room tax proposal under consideration is that Bel Air doesn't suffer from any of the wear and tear related to having overnight visitors, so it really shouldn't be picking up any extra revenue. Moreover, if a portion of the county's take — or all of it as would be required in the current version of the bill — ends up being spent on tourism promotion, Bel Air does stand to benefit. Maybe if enough people start visiting Harford County, Bel Air could even end up with a hotel as a result.

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