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City Council approves lodging tax to aid Chamber promotion efforts

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Morris hotels and motels will pay a lodging tax, the proceeds of which will be used to promote tourism.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a 3 percent tax on the gross receipts of hotels and motels. State law requires that the tax collected must be used to promote a municipality.

While many cities impose lodging taxes -- Morris' ordinance is almost identical to one in place in Benson -- Morris recently proposed its ordinance to make up for the $7,000 it annually contributed to the Morris Chamber of Commerce.

For 2009, the council approved ceasing its annual chamber contribution as part of a move to eliminate charitable giving from the city budget. City Manager Blaine Hill said charitable giving can benefit communities, but it isn't a function that people pay taxes for; city expenditures should be limited to city services, he said.

However, the city also didn't want to turn a blind eye to the needs of the chamber and its role in promoting Morris, and the lodging tax provided a perfect option since the money can only be used for what the chamber does now, Hill said.

The chamber also could benefit by receiving more than the $7,000 it was getting should the lodging tax bring in more revenue, Hill said.

"(The chamber) could get lucky and get that amount in the first three quarters of the year," he said.

A Morris Area Tourism Board will be established to determine how the lodging tax money will be spent to promote the city. The seven-member board will include the chamber administrator, and six appointees who will serve one, two and three year terms. Priority on appointments will be given to recommendations by the chamber. The board will make recommendations to the City Council for final approval.

No representative from affected hotels or motels attended the public hearing before the ordinance was unanimously passed by the five council members. Hill did note that he had conversation with the representatives and none approved of the tax, stating that they believe it could reduce the number of lodgers.

"Even though motel owners are not here, it's important to understand that they don't support this," Hill said.

After publication and a waiting period, the ordinance will be effective April 1.

In other council business:

• The council approved a measure giving it the authority to set water and sewer rates by resolution rather than ordinance.

The move makes the process of changing rates when needed more efficient.

The council will be able to set rates incrementally from time to time through a resolution as opposed to making greater changes less often under the process of changing an ordinance, which requires public hearings, publication and waiting periods, Hill said.

• The Morris Transit System set a ridership record for the second straight year.

Ridership in 2008 was 63,725, which broke the 2007 record -- which was an all-time high -- of 61,951.

The transit system eclipsed the old record on Dec. 18, and saw an increase of more than 600 riders in December 2008 than it did in December 2007.

• The council renewed an engineering contract with Widseth, Smith, Nolting and Associates for 2009.

WSN contracts with the city for civil engineering projects, such as water, sewer and street repair projects, and for bidding assistance.

The 2009 rates for various services is comparable to the 2008 contract, Hill said.

"Some stayed the same, some increased 1 percent or 2 percent," Hill said. "We're satisfied with what they're doing for us."

• In his report to the council, Hill stated that snow removal under the Snow Alert policy is working well, despite circumstances last week when an alert was called but no snow developed.

The city also reached an agreement with Don Gieselman to purchase two acres of property north of the city's Highland Homes addition that can be used for a storm sewer holding pond. Highland Homes, which is on the city's list of infrastructure improvemenst in 2009, does not have a storm sewer system. The city's renovation plans for the area call for construction of a storm sewer system.

City representatives will meet in a work session following the council's Jan. 27 meeting to review redevelopment plans for the old elementary school property.

Architects and the School Property Redevelopment Committee are working on plans to develop the 17.5-acre site and hope to soon move into the platting phase.

The council was -- almost -- on TV for the first time Tuesday.

Equipment to televise the meetings is in place and the meeting was taped. In the future, the meetings are expected to be broadcast live.

• The Stevens County 2009 Board of Appeal and Equilization meeting for the City of Morris could be changed.

The meeting now is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 9 in the Senior Center.

However, council member Jeff Miller asked that the meeting time be moved back to make it easier for the working public to attend.

Miller suggested holding the hearing at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, or keeping the original April 9 date and moving the start time to 5:15 p.m.

Unlike the Truth in Taxation hearings, the Appeal and Equilization meetings allow the public to challenge property values used for setting tax rates.