Comfort Suites alleges new tax is unconstitutional

Published 9:53 pm Wednesday, August 29, 2007

VIDALIA — Even as the city gears up to begin construction on the second phase of the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center, all is not well on the Vidalia Riverfront.

The owner and operator of the Comfort Suites, located on the riverfront, has filed a lawsuit against the city, the Vidalia Riverfront Development District and the Vidalia Riverfront Authority because of the new occupancy tax set to take effect Oct. 1.

Virgil Jackson and his company VFJ Jackson Enterprises, inc., filed the suit last Tuesday.

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The suit alleges the way in which the tax was levied is unconstitutional under Louisiana law.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said because the district was declared to be its own subdivision through Act 54 it therefore does not require a vote, and the way things are set to operate are within their legal boundaries.

Many cities and municipalities around the country have a similar tax, Copeland said.

Natchez has a 3 percent occupancy tax in place, as well as an additional 1.5 percent tax on restaurants with an alcohol permit whose business exceeds $100,000 annually.

“We will go through the legal process and let the courts decide this,” Copeland said.

During the ordinary session of the Louisiana legislature, the legislators passed Act 54, which redefined the Vidalia Riverfront District as a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana.

From there, the Riverfront Authority was allowed to levy an occupancy tax of up to but no more than 6 percent on any rooms or lodging facilities rented in the district.

The stated purpose for the tax was for maintenance, equipment, construction, operation and other support costs for the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center.

The Riverfront Authority voted on July 3 to effect the tax.

The Comfort Suites and the Riverview RV Park are currently the only businesses that will be affected by the tax.

Jackson alleges in the suit affidavit he was convinced by city authorities to come to the area because the district had a low tax base and that would give him a competitive edge.

Jackson signed a 99-year lease for the property Comfort Suites is located on.

The suit also alleges the city aldermen created a bank account to receive the occupancy tax funds, which would imply that the city — and not the riverfront authority — would be the ones to spend the monies received, which would in turn imply the district is a political subdivision of the city.

If riverfront district is considered a political subdivision of the City of Vidalia, the suit alleges the tax is unconstitutional because Louisiana law restricts cities from imposing more than a 3 percent tax on municipal subdivisions without a vote from the electorate in the area.

Vidalia City Attorney Jack McLemore could not be reached for comment.

Jackson was out of town and could not be reached for comment.