THE STORY SO FAR
1981 — Private act passed allowing county to collect per person rafting fee.
2001— Lawsuit filed by rafting outfitter High Country Adventures claiming fee illegal under Maritime Transportation Security Act.
2007 — Chancery Court finds in favor of High Country
2008 – Tennessee Court of Appeals in July upholds lower court ruling
2008 — County files challenge to Appeals Court decision
BENTON, Tenn. — Polk County should plan on having about $1.4 million on had as pay back funds if a ruling is not reversed in a lawsuit over the fee on commercial rafting customers on the Ocoee River.
The fee of $2.50 had been collected by the county in lieu of sales taxes since the 1980s. But a local and ruled the fee violates a federal maritime law against charging fees on navigable rivers, and a Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
The court ruled the illegal fees “were imposed upon, and collected from, a multitude of unknown consumers,” and directed the county to hold the funds for a year pending any claim by those consumers.
Polk County Attorney James Logan said having the money on hand is the best way to protect against a class action suit being filed by former customers or even the state, and he suggested the county borrow the funds.
Polk County Mayor Mike Stinnett said there’s another legal snag.
“The state comptroller has informed us today (Monday) there is no provision in the state statute to borrow money” for that purpose, Mr. Stinnett said.
He said the county can borrow for capital projects, other government projects, tax anticipation notes ... but not to pay back the rafting fee. Mr. Stinnett said a local bank would agree to the loan, but at this point that would be illegal.
A budget committee meeting will be held in Ducktown tonight to discuss the issue, Mr. Stinnett said.
Meanwhile, Polk County commissioners are trying to determine if the original private act establishing the fee can be changed to legally help cover county costs associated with the rafting businesses. And the county mayor said local officials, Mr. Logan and the state comptroller’s office are trying to find a way to borrow the money.
Otherwise, to come up with $1.4 million would mean county employee layoffs and other cuts, he said about Polk, which operates on about $600,000 a month.
Attorney Logan said the county needs to have the money “in the bank,” as well as making the effort to identify and contact past rafting customers to notify them about the refunds.