News: CJ Exclusives

Hotel-less County Adopts Hotel Tax

Also: Charlotte considers toll lanes, Raleigh creates burglar-alarm fee

Camden County has adopted a hotel-motel tax. The new levy will generate revenue as soon as the General Assembly approves — and someone opens a hotel in the county.

Most North Carolina counties have occupancy or so-called “hotel-motel” taxes. The revenues from the taxes typically are set aside for tourism-related projects. The state’s major cities often use the receipts to pay for or help fund expensive infrastructure project such as arenas, performing arts centers, or convention centers.

“We put it in place for down the road,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Jennings told The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City. “There’s no particular reason for doing it; all the other counties have one.”

As might be expected, Camden County set no revenue target for the new tax. At a public hearing on the proposed tax, no one spoke for or against the proposal.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, has introduced a bill that would allow the county to impose the tax. Given that no one would be affected by it, opposition is unlikely.

Raleigh imposes burglar-alarm fee

The city of Raleigh has adopted an ordinance that requires that all burglar alarms be registered — for a fee — with the city. Proceeds from the registration fee will be used to educate alarm users in an attempt to reduce false alarms.

On average 11 percent to 13 percent of all calls to which the Raleigh Policy department responds are generated by burglar alarms. Ninety-eight percent prove to be false alarms.

City officials estimate that false alarms cost Raleigh an average of $887,000 per year, enough to pay the salary, expenses, and equipment of 10 or 11 police officers.

“We are… sending our officers to calls that were essentially a waste of time,” Dawn Bryant, the police department’s lawyer, said to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

The city already has a graduated fine structure for false alarms. There is no penalty for the first and second false alarm per 12-month period. The third through fifth false alarms carry a $50 fine each. The fine increases to $100 each for the sixth and seventh false alarms. The eighth and ninth false alarms are punishable with $250 fines. The fine increases to $500 for the 10th and all subsequent false alarms.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many alarm users are not aware of the potential to be fined until they receive one or are unfamiliar with how to operate their alarm system. The new registration requirement is designed in part to address the problem.

Under the ordinance, it will cost $35 to initially register an alarm system. The cost of subsequent renewals is $25 per year. Failure to register an alarm is punishable by a $125 fine.

Registration fee revenue will be used to fund alarm-use education efforts. Business- and home-alarm users will be able to take a class once a year on how to use their alarms in lieu of paying a fine.

Under the new regulations, the city can also cancel the alarm permit of any site that has 10 or more false alarms in a 12-month period. The police department would also be authorized to ignore burglar alarm calls from such locations. The police would, however, still respond to a phone call for assistance.

The new ordinance is scheduled to go into effect July 1. Public protest over the registration fee could prompt city council to re-examine the issue.

Charlotte HOT lanes?

Charlotte transportation officials are asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to study the possibility of converting future high-occupancy vehicle lanes in northern Mecklenburg County into high-occupancy toll lanes.

An HOV lane is a special lane set aside for vehicles that carry at least a certain number of people. Physically, a HOT lane is virtually identical to a HOV lane. The difference is that cars carrying fewer people that the HOV minimum are allowed on a HOT lane in exchange for paying a toll. The toll can vary based upon the time of day and traffic conditions.

Interstate 77 between the I-85 interchange in Charlotte and the future I-485 interchange near Huntersville is currently being widened. In addition to adding a third travel in each direction, an HOV lane is also being added. Work on the mile project is currently scheduled for completion in October. It will be North Carolina’s first HOV lane.

The proposed HOT conversion study would cost $1 million.

Asheville panhandling ban changes little

Many communities, when faced with a perceived problem with panhandling, adopt tougher ordinances designed to limit begging.

In Asheville, for example, a controversial ordinance that banned begging downtown went into effect in October 2002. The Citizen-Times of Asheville recently reported that things haven’t changed much since the new law went into effect.

“There was the perception that panhandling was a big problem,” Asheville police Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick, commander of the downtown district, told the newspaper. “And I think everybody expected the police to just come in here with billy clubs to start beating people for begging. And that just didn’t happen.”

Police statistics show arrests are down since the passage of the new ordinance. Between January 2001 and September 2002, before the ordinance was passed, officers in Kirkpatrick’s district issued 232 citations — or about 11 per month — for aggressive panhandling. From November 2002 through January 2004, the police have issued 103 citations — just under seven per month — on average for panhandling or public urination.

“Panhandling is an issue, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Jan Davis, Asheville City Council member and business owner said to the Citizen-Times. “The homeless situation has not appreciably changed with or without the ordinance.”

Lowrey is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.