published Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Polk rafting fee afloat in Nashville

By Paul Leach

Polk County’s amended rafting tax initiative awaits the green light for floor votes in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The county wants the tax to help it recoup costs for law enforcement and emergency services it provides for the Ocoee River rafting industry. The latest plan bases the current per-customer tax on the previous year’s number of rafting customers divided by the various county departments’ cost of providing services to the rafting community.

Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, introduced the legislation as House Bill 0392 in early February, and it moved through the State and Local Government Committee on March 1.

“My hard work is already done,” Watson said.

Commissioners and leading representatives of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association reached an agreement over the proposed amendment’s legality and methodology earlier this year. Based on sample calculations, the assessed fee would have amounted to 20 or 21 cents in recent years, and is subject to a 50-cent cap.

The bill had been placed on the House calendar for March 7, but Watson’s office advised that he will ask to hold the bill until its Senate counterpart — SB 1467 — moves forward.

Watson said he struggled against anti-tax sentiment in the House last spring when he introduced a version of the amendment that would have enabled Polk County to levy a flat fee per rafting customer. A number of his peers expressed concern over allowing local governments to place fees on activities that occur on land and waterways under federal jurisdiction.

The previous bill ultimately faltered in the House and never reached the floor in the Senate.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, expects the House and Senate versions of the current bill to pass through the legislature but has not specified a date when he will move the bill from his desk, according to Chase Johnson, a spokesman for Bell.

The Polk County Commission approved the new plan 8-0 in January.

“The amendment has the support of the county commissioners and the rafting outfitters, and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t pass,” said County Commissioner Greg Brooks.

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