Nelsonville meeting - greg smith

Nelsonville City Council member Greg Smith, far right, speaks during a meeting April 8, during which council decided to table an amendment that, if passed, would have confirmed that certain nonprofits (including Stuart's Opera House) are not exempt from an admission tax ordinance.

A gathering storm of controversy over an event admission tax amendment before Nelsonville City Council has been averted, at least for now. City Council voted unanimously to table the ordinance Monday evening after hearing from around 20 people, nearly all of them speaking against the proposal.

Opponents, led by Stuart’s Opera House Executive Director Tim Peacock, argued that as a nonprofit, Stuart’s Opera House should be exempt from a 5 percent admission tax adopted in March 2018. They felt that the tax would unfairly impact the Nelsonville Music Festival, which Stuart’s puts on every late spring, as well as the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway.

The amendment, if approved, would have confirmed that no exemption to the admission tax exists for nonprofits such as Stuart’s and the Scenic Railway.

Supporters of not exempting the aforementioned nonprofits from the admission tax have argued that they should levy the tax on admissions in order to help pay for safety and other services connected to the Nelsonville Music Festival and other events. They’ve maintained that without new revenues, the city of Nelsonville faces a worsening economic crisis, with layoffs possible and even the pool closing.

Many of the comments during Monday evening’s packed meeting noted the value that programs offered by Stuart’s Opera House – most of them free – provide to the community, and spoke of the economic benefits that Stuart’s and the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway bring to the city of Nelsonville and surrounding area.

“You are taxing on the backs of nonprofits that do so much more for our community” than the admission tax would do, said downtown property owner and landlord Bill L’Heureux, who argued that the tax could make the nonprofit organizations feel unwelcome in the city. “What’s going to keep them from staying in Nelsonville?” he asked.

A number of residents who voiced opposition to the tax raised similar concerns that such a tax could nudge the nonprofits, as well as other business owners and investors in the area, out of the city.

“We should not be trying to hurt people making this a tourist community,” said Bernie Roell, who noted that his family’s business, 1st Choice Cabin Rentals, has benefited from tourism.

Miki Brooks, who serves on the Board of Directors for Stuart’s Opera House, compared the admissions tax that visitors would pay to “inviting people to your house for dinner and then asking them to pay for groceries…

“We don’t need to ask our visitors to pay for our services,” Brooks said.

Although many of the people who spoke acknowledged the financial hardships that the city is facing, the general consensus among opponents of the tax was that the city of Nelsonville should explore other options.

Stuart’s Opera House Executive Director Tim Peacock said he learned about the admission tax, when it was initially proposed last year, from an article in the Athens Messenger, and limited communication between the nonprofit and the city since then has made it seem to him as if city officials aren’t willing to work with Stuart’s.

“It’s one thing to have someone ask you for help, but it’s another thing entirely when they tell you you have to help,” Peacock said, noting that “it would be great” if the city could work with Stuart’s and the Railway “and have a conversation with us” to “come up with a solution to the funding crisis.”

City Council members agreed to set up a meeting with administrators for Stuart’s Opera House and the Scenic Railway, and voted to table the tax amendment for now.

Vice President of Council Greg Smith said at the end of the meeting that the attempt to tax Stuart’s and other nonprofits is “not personal,” but added, “We’re up against a wall” financially, “and that scares me.”

In an email Tuesday morning, Peacock said, “I am grateful to the Nelsonville City Council as it appears they listened to public comment which was overwhelmingly in support of Stuart's Opera House and the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway and also opposed to this tax.

“Council invited us (Stuart's) and HVSR to the table to discuss ideas as to how we can help the city that is currently in a financial crisis,” Peacock continued. “Stuart's Opera House is happy to be invited to the discussion and will do everything in our power to help find a solution.”

The NEWS will follow up with a lengthier story in Thursday’s issue.

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