Littleton's City Council debated the prospect of creating a lodging tax for hotels that could provide money for the city's arts, culture and tourism programs during a meeting March 22.
The issue could appear on the November ballot for the 2022 general election, along with a slate of other measures, should council decide to support it.
Under the proposal, presented by the city's Arts and Culture Commission, a tax on Littleton's five hotels and two motels could range from 3.5% to 5% and could generate between about $730,000 and more than $1 million in funds. This is still subject to change, according to city spokesperson Kelli Narde, as it is unclear whether the motels or other short-term rentals in the city will ultimately be included.
The plan comes amid two years of hardship for arts and culture organizations that have weathered dwindling funds and public engagement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's all the more reason why investing in such areas should be reprioritized, said leaders of the Littleton commission.
“COVID-19 has allowed us to recognize how invested the citizens and the city are invested in arts organizations," said JD McCrumb, the commission's interim vice chair.
Under the commission's proposal, 50% of these funds would go towards upkeep of the Littleton Museum, Bemis Library, the Town Hall Arts Center and the Hudson Gardens and Events Center, which the city does not own but regularly partners with.
Money would also go towards grants, about 30%, which would serve eligible Littleton-based arts and culture groups who could see anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.
Finally, 20% of the funds would go towards bolstering Littleton's marketing campaign in an attempt to draw in more tourism, such as through the creation of a new website to highlight the city's downtown area and cultural amenities.
These percentages may change, however, if council does decide to move forward with a lodging tax, with Mayor Kyle Schlachter in particular calling for more funding to go towards the city's marketing.
And concerns arose around the prospect of the city putting up new funds for Hudson Gardens, which at-large council member Pam Grove said was not safe from being sold to developers given that it is privately owned.
“The amount of money this would generate … on an annual basis is not enough to save it from development, that’s for sure," Narde said.
This was the case for the beloved and longstanding family-owned O'Toole's Garden Center in northwest Littleton which announced this week it would be closing at the end of summer. The store's owner, Adele O'Toole, told Colorado Community Media that the decision was "out of my hands" as a developer's plans were poised to choke the business by encroaching on much of the surrounding parking area that O'Toole's uses but does not own.
And there is still the question of whether council will have majority support to move forward with putting the tax on this year's November ballot.
Jerry Valdes, councilmember for Littleton's District 2, was tentative to endorse the proposal and said it may be wiser for the city to invest money from such a tax back into its general fund, which pays for a swath of vital services.
"And then when another COVID of some sort hits, we have to realign things instead of that revenue going to an entity that is not going to be needed at that time," he said.
Other councilmembers voiced support for earmarking the funds specifically for the city's Arts and Culture Commission, which they said could gain more voter approval if the issue went to a vote.
"We don't have any (money) set aside for arts and culture," said District 1 Councilmember Patrick Driscoll. "It's a good way for the citizens to say 'yeah I support arts and culture' and this is a great way to do it."
Driscoll and others argued that if citizens knew more specifically where tax money would be allocated, such as the case with Ballot Issue 3A, which raised the city's sales tax to pay for infrastructure projects, those initiatives would pass. Telling voters that money is going towards the general fund, however, makes things more vague, councilmembers said.
Valdes continued to question how much support a revenue stream for arts and culture would have from voters. He said part of 3A's success hinged on the fact that the money was for tangible amenities, such as streets and sidewalks.
“People understand streets, we’re talking arts and culture here," Valdes said.
But a city-run survey of just over 700 residents in 2020 found that 71% supported passing a lodging tax to go toward arts and culture.
District 4 Councilmember Kelly Milliman said voters would see it as an "investment into the community" and called the lodging tax a "win-win."
Stephen Barr, councilmember for Littleton's District 3, also pondered the best way to sell the lodging tax to voters, but said ultimately "we need to get our arts up and running again because it’s been a horrific two years."
Mayor Pro Tem Gretchen Rydin said the timing was right for new investments into the city's cultural scene.
"History repeats itself," Rydin said. "With the 1918 flu we had the roaring '20s which was all art and culture, and so we're probably entering something similar and so this is a great time to invest in that."
A updated plan will be proposed again to council in July, with the possibility of a first reading in August.
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