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Friday at the Benton County Fair 2 (copy)

Aleah Hendrix, 10, of Philomath, is shown at the Benton County Fair in this file photo from Aug. 3. A new 3 percent transient lodging tax approved by the county is expected to generate money for fairgrounds improvements and other tourism-related investments.

The Benton County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a new transient lodging tax during a public hearing on Tuesday.

Set to take effect on July 1, the 3 percent tax will be imposed on all facilities that provide short-term stays of up to 30 days and that are open to the public for more than 30 days out of the year.

In addition to hotels and motels, it will apply to resorts, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cabins, lodges, RV sites, campgrounds, Airbnb properties and other short-stay accommodations.

The tax is projected to bring in close to $600,000 a year for the county, with at least some of that money expected to go to the county fairgrounds. The facility is struggling financially and has obtained the board’s endorsement for an ambitious facilities improvement program but has only a fraction of the money to pay for it.

Under state law, at least 70 percent of revenue from the tax must go to tourism promotion or tourism-related facilities, and Benton County Fairgrounds manager Lynne McKee — who championed the new tax — has appealed to the commissioners for a share of the funds.

At Tuesday’s hearing, County Administrator Joe Kerby signaled that a portion of the proceeds would be coming her way.

“It’s the plan to use some of that money from the transient lodging tax to support some of those planned improvements at the fairgrounds,” he said.

The county tax will be in addition to the 9 percent tax imposed by the city of Corvallis and the 1.8 percent charged by the state. Altogether, travelers renting accommodations in the local area could see a total tax of 13.8 percent added to their room bill.

That drew objections from Greg Astley of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, one of two people who spoke against the tax at a public hearing on Tuesday. While Albany’s total room tax burden is now at 13.8 percent after Linn County passed a 3 percent transient lodging tax of its own, Astley said tax rates are lower in other nearby communities such as Eugene and Salem.

“This lodging tax you’re proposing … is not in line with other communities around you,” he said.

“It’s something you should consider.”

Todd Zoller, who said he represented two local hotels, argued that the added expense could cost him some price-sensitive customers.

“We do lose some of that business,” he said.

But Darrell Oakes, who is organizing a conference in Corvallis for the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, spoke in favor of the tax, saying the money would support badly needed upgrades at the fairgrounds.

“The transient lodging tax is a direct benefit to the fairgrounds, which will go back to local hotels,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the limitations of the local fairgrounds.”

County Commissioner Xan Augerot spoke in favor of the plan as well, saying the tax would help the fairgrounds become more competitive in the mid-valley.

“We really are trying to position the Benton County Event Center and Fairgrounds not as a statewide asset but as a regional asset,” she said.

“We want to make it better, add heads to beds and bring people in.”

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Both Astley and Zoller expressed concern that unregistered rental properties along the lines of Airbnbs would find ways to avoid paying the tax, in effect penalizing hotels and motels that play by the rules.

“There’s a lot of folks out there not paying their fair share,” Astley said.

But Commissioner Pat Malone assured him that the county was working to ensure that everyone covered by the new tax pays up.

“We want it to be a level playing field,” he said.

The board also voted 3-0 to accept an advisory committee’s recommendations for the use of Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund money.

In other action, the board:

• Approved a request to annex a piece of property owned by Kevin and Michelle Sullivan into the Philomath Fire Protection District.

• Conducted a second reading of an ordinance to amend the county code to enable ranked choice voting in certain elections, as authorized by voters in 2016. That ordinance will take effect on May 16.

• Approved a set of policies for conducting ranked choice voting in certain elections.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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