Tennessee: Polk raft tax OK, attorney general says

Tennessee: Polk raft tax OK, attorney general says

June 18th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE -- Despite an attorney general's opinion published Wednesday that supports a tax on Polk County whitewater rafting customers, the House sponsor of a bill to levy the fee says it may be too late to act on it this session.

Delaying the bill until next year might allow time for compromise, said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland.

"Hopefully we're going to be able to sit down and come up with a resolution where everybody's happy," Rep. Watson said.

Scott Mantooth, vice president of the Ocoee Outfitters Association, said Wednesday that outfitters "are willing to come to the table and discuss the matter."

Polk County Mayor Mike Stinnett could not be reached for comment.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. said in an opinion that House Bill 2411, which would allow Polk County to impose a privilege tax on the "amusement" of whitewater rafting, "complies with the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002."

The opinion states that the legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, "represents a reasonable charge, imposed on a fair and equitable basis, that is calculated based upon the cost of providing services to rafts and their occupants traveling on the Ocoee and Hiwassee rivers."

Sen. Bunch could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Last year, the Tennessee Court of Appeals threw out a $2.50-per-ticket rafting tax, ruling that federal maritime law does not allow state and local goverments to levy taxes or fees on vessels operating upon navigable waters under federal control.

In his opinion, Mr. Cooper said the law permits reasonable fees in three instances, including when they are used to pay the cost of a service to the vessel. The opinion notes that the previous tax did not specifically allocate revenues to pay costs of services provided to the rafts.

But Gerald Marshall, secretary of the outfitters association, said in a recent interview that the county provides little service to the Ocoee.

He said police presence mostly comes from TVA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The road through the Ocoee gorge is a U.S. highway.

He said outfitters pay for water and for things like garbage service, although the Polk County ambulance service is called if there's an accident.

Mr. Marshall said the outfitters pay property taxes, sales taxes and other levies, such as a hotel-motel tax.

"We are willing to pay taxes," he said. "What we're not willing to do is just to be taxed to death by a government not willing ot use any of that tax to help us."