Tofino’s resorts are butting heads with the town’s local government over the idea of using tourists’ tax dollars on a wastewater treatment plant.
The Municipal And Regional District Tax is a 3 per cent fee added to the hotel room bill of tourists staying at Tofino’s fixed-roof accommodation providers. The funds generated by this tax have historically been earmarked for promotional materials by the town’s destination marketing organization, Tourism Tofino, though the provincial government added affordable housing projects to the list of permissible uses in 2018.
A letter signed by a group of Tofino accommodation providers suggests the district office has been investigating whether MRDT money could be put towards a proposed wastewater treatment plant. Tofino is the only municipality left on Vancouver Island that currently does not treat its sewage and has already passed a Dec. 31, 2020, deadline to do so.
The district received $40 million from the provincial and federal governments in 2019 to put towards a wastewater treatment plant, but has been sniffing out other funding opportunities since learning that the $54 million its consultants had estimated a plant would cost was underestimated by roughly $30 million last year. One of the funding sources the district has been investigating is the MRDT, but local accommodation providers are voicing their concern about that idea, suggesting marketing the town to potential tourists is a vital pursuit.
“The undersigned accommodations have significant concerns that the District of Tofino began lobbying the Province to use MRDT (Hotel Tax) funds for the Waste Water Treatment Plant as early as the fall 2019, without any prior and structured consultation with resort owners and operators that collect and remit this tax,” reads a letter signed by Crystal Cove Beach Resort, Long Beach Lodge, Pacific Sands Beach Resort, Tofino Resort and Marina, Best Western Tin Wis Resort, Stay Tofino, The Wickaninnish Inn, Middle Beach Lodge and Cox Bay Beach Resort.
“Destination marketing and visitor services have and continue to play a critical role in the success of Tofino’s visitor economy. The full impact of the pandemic on tourism is still unknown and so these activities are more important than ever, particularly in what is expected to be a super-heated, post pandemic environment until 2024.”
The letter, dated March 22, was reviewed by council during April 13’s regular meeting and the district’s chief administrative officer Bob MacPherson suggested “the sentiments” were unexpected.
“I did have a quick heads up that this was coming, but it did come as a bit of a surprise,” he said.
He explained the idea of using MRDT funding towards the wastewater treatment plant was raised in 2019, but was presented to the province by a Tofino resident and not the district office.
“We ended up playing a little bit of catch up. Additionally, we understand that there was discussion again in the community with the (Tofino) Ratepayers Association promoting this idea. In the catch up that we’ve played as staff, we’ve approached the province to ask, one, if this is something that is even possible and, two, what the process would be,” MacPherson explained, adding district staff have had two conversations with the province about the feasibility of putting MRDT dollars towards treating the town’s sewage.
“It appears that doing something like this is technically possible, although outside of what’s strictly allowed with the MRDT,” he said. “We want to be clear that no lobbying has occurred, but we’ve asked questions about how this can happen…We’re trying to understand the issue a little bit better.”
He noted the province has made 12 official exceptions to MRDT spending in the past, including locally when it permitted Tourism Tofino to use MRDT funds to build a new Cox Bay Visitor Information Centre.
Coun. Duncan McMaster said he took exception to the resorts’ letter, specifically in terms of the suggestion that the district entered into lobbying efforts in 2019 without prior consultation with the resort operators that collect the tax.
He suggested at least one of the letter’s signees had lobbied the government about MRDT spending in 2019 without the knowledge of the district.
“Therefore, I would like to ask who cast the first stone? And, more importantly, who’s responsible for running the town, Tourism Tofino or the district?” McMaster said. “Secondly, I would like to remind both Tourism Tofino and the District of Tofino that the MRDT is a tax paid for by the travelling public and really does not belong to either party.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers said she appreciated McMaster’s sentiment, but suggested the MRDT conversation “became a bit of a beast on its own” and that both the district office and local resorts are working on fostering a positive relationship.
“We’ve had some very positive, healthy conversations lately with Tourism Tofino and with accommodation providers and the district. It’s a clean slate. Let’s not talk about stones being thrown and find a way to move forward in a productive manner to find ways outside of the box to look at supporting the cost of the sewage treatment plant,” Chalmers said.
“I just think it’s important for the community and for us also to know that, at this point, we’re trying to work collaboratively and cohesively and positively to get something done.”
Mayor Dan Law suggested the conversation would need to continue between the town’s council, accommodation providers and community.