Lodging tax meeting next week canceled, changes to proposal coming

DOVER — A controversial measure that would have established a lodging tax in Kent County and directed the proceeds to the DE Turf sports complex has been pulled back.

Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, announced Thursday afternoon he would ask Levy Court to delay a planned hearing on the tax set for Tuesday. A few hours later, the county said the committee meeting has been officially canceled.

Sen. Paradee intends to file legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January that would send the proceeds to the county to use as it pleases, rather than reserving it for the not-for-profit entity.

The issue stems from legislation introduced by Sen. Paradee and approved in June in the final days of the 2019 legislative session. That bill, which passed with overwhelming support, gives Levy Court the authority to impose a lodging tax for hotels and motels in Kent County of up to 3 percent. Such a tax would be in addition to the 8 percent rate the state imposes and the .5 percent lodging tax going into effect in Dover in 2020.

All funds collected from the charge would flow to the Kent County Regional Sports Complex Corporation, which runs the DE Turf in Frederica. The complex could use the money “to remain competitive by advertising, promoting, and providing incentives for use of the facility, to establish a program to benefit youth by providing to youth organizations and scholastic institutions the opportunity to use its facility at reduced cost, and to maintain, improve, and support the facility through the payment of costs, expenses, and associated debt,” the bill states.

According to DE Turf officials, the tax could bring in around $950,000, which is needed to offer incentives to attract large tournaments to the county. Also known as bid fees, those incentives are common practice in travel sports and can run from $75,000 to $150,000, officials with the complex have said.

The product of years of planning and dreaming, the DE Turf opened in the spring of 2017 to acclaim and high hopes. Backers touted the millions of dollars they said it would generate for Kent County, while youth sports teams looked forward to having a shiny new location for soccer, lacrosse and more.

By most accounts, the complex and its 12 fields have proven to be a boon to the county. The DE Turf hosted 20 big events in its first year and continues to be busy: Officials with the facility said in January more than 102,000 people visited the complex in 2018, creating an economic impact of around $31 million. Per the complex, those visitors booked nearly 14,000 hotel or motel rooms in 2018.

But questions have been raised about whether it is wise to send taxpayer dollars to a non-government entity and what impact a higher lodging tax might have on hotel occupancy.

“Why do you want to get into a pay-to-play environment?” Delawarean Tom Pledgie asked at a public forum on the tax in August. “Why would you want to get into this when there is another nearby facility planning to build a $200 million complex just on the horizon?

“Do you think those guys are not going to be able to come up with matching money? They can match it, double it and triple it. Why do you want to even get into that environment?”

Some have also raised eyebrows at the process, noting the legislation was filed only days before the legislature broke for six months and the main sponsor’s brother is on the board of directors for the complex.

For his part, Sen. Paradee insisted nothing untoward took place and the bill came to him with the support of Levy Court.

“With just a few days remaining in the legislative session, DETurf asked for my assistance. Why me? Because in order to get a bill on the agenda with time running out, you need a respected member of the majority party as the primary sponsor,” he said in a statement.

“Six Democrats and four Republicans joined me as co-sponsors. Up until that point, my role was no different than any other Kent County legislator.

“In hindsight, I wish there had been more time for me to carefully consider the legislation and potential conflicts, but my decision was made in haste and based solely on assurances that the Commissioners supported the measure.

“As hard as this might be for some to believe, my brother and I rarely discuss our work. When we do find an opportunity to chat, our conversations focus on our children, our mother’s health, and just about anything but work and board meetings. I was not aware that he was a member of the DETurf’s volunteer board, and, as a successful land use attorney, my brother is not legally permitted to discuss the work he does on behalf of his clients.”

The measure was filed only after an attempt by Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, to add the tax to the capital bond bill faced stiff opposition from some key lawmakers.

Sen. Paradee did not rule out Levy Court commissioners directing some revenue to the DE Turf in the future but said in his statement such a decision “will be their choice and their choice alone.”

He could not be reached for further comment Thursday. Neither DE Turf Executive Director Chris Giacomucci nor Bill Strickland, the chairman of the facility’s board, returned phone messages left for them.

Levy Court Commissioner Jeff Hall expects Kent County residents to be more open to the tax if the money will be going directly to the county government’s coffers, but he still opposes the proposal.

“I believe that if the county needs a million dollars in revenue for the general good of the county then we should be spreading that tax across all of our revenue sources,” he said.

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