After a tumultuous few months of heated exchanges and a deadline extension from the province, Tofino’s district office and the town’s local resorts have come to an agreement on Municipal and Regional District Tax spending for the next five years.
The MRDT, formerly known as the additional hotel room tax, is a 3 per cent fee paid by visitors staying at local tourism accommodations that traditionally goes into the budget of the town’s destination marketing organization Tourism Tofino.
A new five-year financial plan for those funds was due to the provincial government on Nov. 30, but an extension was granted as the district and resorts locked horns over how to spend it.
The point of contention was an extra 0.8 per cent chunk of the tax that the district had applied for and received in 2016to help pay for the construction of a new visitor centre at Cox Bay, raising the MRDT from 2 per cent to 3 per cent, with 0.2 per cent going to the province.
That visitor centre is expected to be paid in full this year and the district had hoped to reallocate $400,000 of the extra 0.8 per cent towards paying for a wastewater treatment plant project that would see Tofino finally fulfill its federal mandate to treat its sewage before pumping it into the ocean.
Resorts, though, rebuked that plan and presented a last-minute compromise through the newly formed West Coast Hospitality Association, which promised to collect a new 1 per cent ‘sustainability fee’ and donate up to $400,000 of that fee’s proceeds to the district annually for wastewater treatment plant payments.
Spurred by concerns from district staff over relying on a new and untested voluntary fee to pay for much-needed infrastructure, the town’s municipal council rejected the West Coast Hospitality Association’s pitch, leading to a stalemate.
Both parties met in December, along with a mediator, and were able to hash out a Memorandum of Understanding that guarantees the district will receive $400,000 for wastewater treatment payments annually, beginning in 2023, through either the MRDT or the WCHA’s sustainability fee.
That means the full MRDT amount will go to Tourism Tofino, however if the WCHA’s sustainability fee does not reach $400,000 by each year’s deadline, the district will take the remainder out of the MRDT pot.
“It was a difficult conversation. There were lots of issues that were thrown out there and people were being fairly frank, but that’s good because that gives everybody a chance to respond and if there’s misinformation to correct that information and if there’s hard feelings, to make up,” Tofino Mayor Dan Law told the Westerly News. “All the parties were able to find common ground, compromise a little bit and come up with an MOU that everybody was quite pleased with…Everybody was really willing to talk openly and clear the air and work on a solution. That was heartwarming and it was great. I’m actually looking forward to working with all the participants more in the future.”
WCHA founding member JJ Belanger told the Westerly that he is confident resort owners will sign the agreement.
“There’s not anybody that’s not onboard at this point. There’s a few people that are still on the fence, but the majority of the resorts that I’ve spoken to, the bigger ones, are on board,” he said.
“It’s a win-win-win. We’re saving taxpayers a big financial tax burden and we are really looking out for our community. Plus, if there’s any surplus funds that come of this 1 per cent that we’re going to be collecting, it can go towards other projects, or it can be a charitable donation.”
He suggested Tourism Tofino receiving the full amount of MRDT funds will help keep the town’s economy churning as it tries to rebound from the economic effects of COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of projects in the pipeline already that have been planned for the next four years, once we pay off the visitors centre. That 1 per cent is going to be monumental in getting things done. It’s not going to be spent on more advertising, let’s put it that way,” he said.
He added though that celebrations won’t start until after the province officially approves the agreement.
“There is still a catch, the government may not agree to this; then we’re back to square one,” he said.
Law expressed confidence that the province will sign off the plan.
“It’s fairly unprecedented in my mind for the province to receive this kind of community support for this request, so hopefully the province will go for it,” he said. “I think the province is looking for a win and if we can come together as one community and one voice altogether, I think the province will like it a lot.”
The meeting around MRDT spending included participation from the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Tofino, Tofino Ratepayers Association and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and Law said all parties committed to working together to lobby the province for additional tourism-based tax support.
He noted that the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation has a voluntary 1 per cent fee in place at participating local businesses that goes towards the Tribal Parks Allies program.
“The ultimate idea is that local businesses would support the Tribal Park Allies initiative as well as the West Coast Hospitality Association initiative and that both of those initiatives will, hopefully, be superseded by a provincial tax that could be levied and then used for local infrastructure or whatever the community needs,” he said. “It was really encouraging to see possibly competing initiatives come together, have a discussion and agree to move forward together and look for an even better way to get extra funding for local infrastructure programs and projects.”