New commissioner questions tax hike for sports complex

Warren County’s newest commissioner said he was undecided on plans to increase the county lodging tax by 1 percent to finance construction of a $10 million sports complex.

“I have questions,” Commissioner Tom Grossmann said after a long discussion of the proposed tax hike during Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

The meeting was expected to be an opportunity for Phil Smith, the county official who would be managing the facility, to answer any questions lingering since Gov. John Kasich signed the state budget, including language enabling the commissioners to raise the hotel tax without risk of a referendum.

“We’ve been working on a destination sports complex for about a decade,” said Smith, president and CEO of the Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The facility will be self sustaining.”

Even after the increase, the county’s lodgers would be charged 4 percent less than those in Hamilton County, Smith said.

County lodgers would be paying 0.5 percent more than in Montgomery County, 1.25 percent more than in Butler County, according to a list provided afterward by Smith.

Commissioners Pat South and Dave Young expressed support for upping the lodging tax to satisfy potential investors in bonds to be sold to finance the 20-field complex, expected to draw young athletes and their parents from around the world to large tournaments. The complex is to be located on land to be donated by Otterbein Homes.

They pointed to support from hotel operators in the county and the expectation that most of the taxes - and other revenues spent at restaurants, stores and attractions such as Kings Island Amusement Park - would be paid by visitors not living in Warren County.

The bonds would probably be sold through the Warren County Port Authority, but would be the obligation of the visitors bureau, not the county, Young said.

“It’s a free market transaction,” Young said.

Grossmann, elected in November, questioned the proposed location, on Ohio 741, miles from either Interstate 75 or 71, and quizzed Smith on what would happen with excess revenues, if the facility exceeded expectations.

Grossmann, who signed a letter encouraging local lawmakers to push for the lodging tax hike language in the budget, also suggested the additional tax should be eliminated, once the bond debt has been paid off.

After the meeting, Grossmann said he was also scrutinizing the project in the aftermath of opposition expressed by Ray Warrick, the head of the Warren County Republican Party.

Warrick is also a leader of the county’s Tea Party faction, which toppled the previous county GOP leadership last year.

“I don’t think the government has any place in sports marketing,” Warrick said during a June 23 commission meeting.

Warrick said enacting the tax without offering voters the opportunity for referendum was “breathtaking.”

South and Young, both Republicans, said the county was trying to bolster tourism.

“This is one activity I want to encourage, our No. 1 industry,” Young said.

By increasing sales taxes from people at the tournaments, the county hoped to be able to roll back inside millage as it did for about 10 years in the 1990s to 2000s, South said.

The board is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the lodging tax increase in August.

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