Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Decision on new hotel tax put off in Mebane until April 8 after publisher protests inadequate public notice

Mebane’s city council has put off a decision on imposing a 3 percent hotel occupancy tax on its hotels, after Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. raised objections that the public hearing had not been properly advertised.

Boney objected Monday night to two items on the council’s public hearing agenda which had not been advertised in The Alamance News.

Boney said that the failure to advertise the hearing about a new tax on the side of the city actually affected by the new tax was unfair to those businesses, who probably would not know of the hearing.

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. addressed Mebane’s city council during two public hearings it conducted Monday night, even though neither was advertised in The Alamance News.

While the city had advertised three of its six public hearing items in both The Alamance News and The News of Orange County, two other public hearings had been advertised only in the Orange County newspaper.

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One of the hearings that had been advertised in both papers and a related public hearing item that had inadvertently not been advertised in either paper were pulled from the agenda.

Boney said the recent closure of The Mebane Enterprise had changed the nature of the city’s requirements for legal advertising. That newspaper announced that it was closing its Mebane office on North Fourth Street, eliminating its website, and folding its print publication into The News of Orange County in Hillsborough, a weekly newspaper that, like the Mebane paper, is also owned by the Womack Publishing Co. of Chatham, Virginia.

Boney took particular exception to the failure to advertise the hotel occupancy tax in The Alamance News. “There are no hotels that I’m aware of on the Orange County side of Mebane,” Boney reminded the council members, adding, “All of the hotels are on the Alamance County side of Mebane.”

City attorney Lawson Brown quoted from the North Carolina statute that allows a county that crosses county lines, as Mebane does, to advertise in a newspaper on either side of the county line.

Brown stressed that Mebane had provided “adequate legal notice” about the public hearing on the hotel tax.

But Boney noted that the preponderance of Mebane’s population has historically been on the Alamance County side of the line, about 90 percent, and even now is likely 80 percent even with the significant recent growth on the Orange County side of the city.

Mebane currently has three hotels – a Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn, and a Hampton Inn – located off N.C. 119 near I-85/40.  A fourth hotel is currently under construction near Lowe’s Home Improvement on the other side of N.C. 119. All are on the Alamance County side of Mebane.

A Holiday Inn Express is located along Spring Forest Drive, off NC 119, in Mebane.
A fourth hotel, a so-called “dual branding” hotel with both Hawthorn Suites and LaQuinta brands, is under construction behind/beside Lowe’s Home Improvement along I-85/40 near NC 119. Below is the proposed rendering of the four-story future hotel with 103 rooms.
This is the look of the combined Hawthorn Suites and LaQuinta hotels shown to city council members in 2021 as planned for land along I-85/40 behind Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Boney also noted that the council’s agenda did not very accurately describe the nature of the council’s intended consideration.  The agenda listed the topic as a “Resolution Establishing the Alamance County Municipal Tourism Development Authority,” without specifically detailing that a new 3 percent tax was being contemplated for adoption.

Boney pressed that the Alamance hotels had not been “properly notified.”  He also raised the specter that, if a hotel chose to challenge the new tax with litigation because of the failure to provide adequate or proper notice, the city would run the risk of forfeiting any occupancy taxes collected.

The council ultimately decided to postpone consideration of the occupancy tax until the April 8 city council meeting, with the further stipulation that the hearing be advertised in both newspapers.

Boney acknowledged that, in earlier public hearings in Elon and Burlington, hotel owners had not come forward to protest or discuss the proposed new tax.  And he added that may also be the case in Mebane, but, he said, they deserved to at least know about the possible new taxation.

Boney also noted that The Alamance News has lower legal advertising rates even though its circulation is “much larger.”

Boney pointed out the relative circulations of the newspapers.  When The Mebane Enterprise existed, he pointed out, the most recent filing (October 2023) with the U.S. Postal Service was that it had 366 subscribers, while The Alamance News had 3,777. All newspapers across the country that use the U.S. Mail to any extent are required to submit their circulation data to their respective post offices.

He also noted that access to legal notices is broader in The Alamance News, where all legal notices are free and accessible to all online, while the legal notices about the Mebane public hearings in the Orange County paper had not been posted online when Boney looked for them.

“I see absolutely no reason why we should not advertise in The Alamance News,” said councilman Tim Bradley.  “It’s probably a better representation of, at least, the Alamance County citizens of Mebane.”

Bradley said that, since the consolidation of the Mebane paper into the The News of Orange County, the latter “has very, very, very little to do with Mebane unless you follow Eastern High School sports.”

Bradley said he thought the city should be advertising in the “more widely circulated” newspaper.

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