ERWIN — Thousands of folks annually venture down the waters of the Nolichucky River in Unicoi County and, each time one does, rafting companies pay the county a $2 rafting tax.
The county is now exploring the possibility of having this tax serve as its yearly funding allocation to the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce. The Unicoi County Rafting Committee met Monday evening and recommended a move that, if granted final approval by the full county commission, would see the total amount of this tax collected annually split evenly between the county and the Chamber of Commerce.
In the past, the total rafting tax collected has gone toward the county’s general fund, with the Chamber of Commerce receiving a contribution from the county to go toward its operational budget.
Rafting Committee Chair Doug Bowman said that over the past five years, an annual average of more than $25,000 has been collected on the rafting tax. If a split between the county and the Chamber of Commerce were to be implemented, Bowman said the Chamber of Commerce would receive more than $12,500 each year at this average.
Bowman said the move would also place an impetus on the Chamber of Commerce to further promote rafting opportunities in Unicoi County.
“That also gives them the opportunity to help themselves by promoting rafting,” Bowman said at a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee. “If they want more revenue, they can promote rafting to increase rides.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the proposed split came about after advice from County Attorney Doug Shults due to concerns over a lawsuit in Polk County involving that county’s rafting tax.
If the tax split is put into place, the Chamber of Commerce will be tasked with monitoring the rafting tax and make sure that the county collects the amount it is supposed to, Lynch said. He also said it will be up to the Chamber to effect the necessary changes to ensure the county’s rafting tax conforms to legal standards.
“In essence, the tax will still be collected and the Chamber will monitor and then they’ll give us half of it,” Lynch said.
Under the proposal, the Unicoi County Clerk’s Office would continue to collect licensing fees and taxes, and the Unicoi County Trustee’s Office would then disseminate the funding.
Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said there is still much work to be done before the tax split is implemented and there are still a number of questions that must be addressed by the county and Chamber, particularly from a legal aspect. However, she said the Chamber has been working with the county to look at ways to track accountability of the rafting tax.
Delp said that when the state allowed recreation taxes, such as the lodging tax and rafting tax, to be levied, the intent was that a portion of the amounts collected would go toward tourism and tourism promotion. Other communities that take advantage of recreation taxes also allocate this funding to their Chambers of Commerce for tourism promotion, Delp said.
“We really need to be mindful that we’re allocating these taxes as we need to,” Delp said.
There are benefits to having the dedicated revenue source that could come through the rafting tax, Delp said, including having a dedicated funding source, which could lead to additional grant opportunities and incentives through the Tennessee Three-Star Program.
“Obviously, we know there are going to be bad years where the river’s going to be down and the revenue stream is going to be lower,” Delp said. “...But it will help us with budgeting a little more in that we’ll know that revenue’s coming from that dedicated stream.”
The Unicoi County Commission is likely to consider implementation of the rafting tax split at its September meeting. If approved, the split would not go into effect until the 2012-13 fiscal year.