Voting Tuesday

Ruth and Bob Dishman make their selection Tuesday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 910 NW 38th, during Lawton’s motel/hotel tax election. Ruth said the couple considers it “our duty” to vote in every election. Tuesday’s election centered on extending a tax charged on the rental of hotel and motel rooms in Lawton.

Lawton’s hotel-motel tax will remain effect, after voters overwhelmingly approved a new 10-year, 7-percent tax after going to the polls Tuesday.

In the end result, almost 77 percent of voters casting early, absentee and election-day ballots approved the tax, which will go into effect May 1 to replace the existing five-year, 5.5 percent tax when it expires. The final tally was 1,240 “yes” votes (76.69 percent) and 377 “no” votes (23.31 percent), for a tax that also will be applied to Airbnb and similar establishments when it begins May 1.

Ward 4 Councilman Jay Burk, who also is the long-time chairman of Lawton Enhancement Trust Authority, said he was pleased voters did what supporters knew they would: support a revenue source that makes a difference in the quality of life in Lawton.

“We’re very excited and very thankful that everyone believed in what we’re doing,” he said. “The hotel-motel tax is very, very needed by so many organizations. We’re very thankful that citizens went out in the cold and voted.”

Burk said the tax will allow the city to continue using the revenue to help entities that suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also supporting economic development and efforts that bring in tourism, “when COVID calms down enough to bring conventions in.” The end result, Burk said, is helping local businesses.

“We’re thankful they believed in what we’re going to do,” Burk said, of voters who braved Tuesday’s frigid temperatures to cast ballots. “The money is going to a good cause, making Lawton a better place to live.”

Approval of the tax allows the city to continue supporting progressive programs, said Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce President Krista Ratliff.

“We are so happy that the community of Lawton-Fort Sill recognizes the importance of supporting our community and moving it forward,” she said.

Ratliff said the revenues from that tax will allow the chamber’s convention and tourism bureau to continue its work to lure conventions to Lawton, which, in turn, helps stimulate the local economy.

“This tax allows us to offer grants to more agencies and organizations that look to hold conventions here,” she said, pointing to a manufacturing convention and mayor’s convention that will bring hundreds of visitors to Lawton, each being held in Southwest Oklahoma for the first time. “That funding (for grants) comes through the bureau through the hotel-motel tax.”

In addition to keeping the tax on hotel and motel rooms, the city ordinance defining the hotel-motel tax continues to exempt Lawton residents who can prove their residency, as well as workers for governmental entities, to include military personnel.

New provisions include extending the tax to Airbnb and similar rental establishments, capturing revenue from what has become an increasingly popular housing option, Burk said. The ordinance defines hotel as including vacation rental homes, transient guest homes, tourist homes, houses or courts, rooming houses, bed and breakfast establishments, trailer houses and dormitory spaces where bed space is rented to individuals or groups. It also adds a new operator category: a person or entity who charges for the occupancy or receives a service fee or commission from the occupancy of a room.

By definition, the tax is restricted to expenditures that encourage, promote and foster conventions, tourism, industrial development and economic development. The revenue supports activities as diverse as economic development, funding the fireworks display that closes out the annual Freedom Festival, and aiding groups such as Lawton Philharmonic Orchestra and Lawton Heritage Association (which operates the Mattie Beal Home).

In an average year, the 5.5 percent tax generates about $1.2 million annually. City officials estimate the 1.5 percent increase in the tax will generate another $300,000.

Those revenues are remitted to the City of Lawton, which allocates funds based on a formula set by the City Council. In past years, that has meant 70 percent went to the Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce and the Lawton Economic Development Corporation (this fiscal year, the allocation was 60 percent), 14 percent to tourism (this year, 18 percent), 11 percent to the city’s economic development fund (this year, 15 percent) and 5 percent to the Lawton Enhancement Trust Authority (this year, 7 percent).

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