Wading Through

I’ve been reporting for The Conway Daily Sun for more than two months now, and I think I’m starting to get things figured out. But now that I’m at a daily, I’ve started wading through topics that take me two to three days to report on. It’s a complexity I enjoy, but with a lot of work.

First, the backstory:

I broke a story about state legislators looking to add a $3 fee to AMC and RMC accommodations in the White Mountains last week, which launched me into a story about who pays what taxes. The AMC and the RMC offer similar (although not the same) accommodations on the sides of the mountains, including stays in rustic huts. A lot of people think the AMC and the RMC don’t pay the state’s 9 percent rooms and meals tax, so when it came to adding a $3 fee, people thought it seemed fair.

One problem—the AMC does pay the rooms and meals tax. Or, more accurately, they pay the rooms tax. Non-profits have an exemption from the meals side of things, but the AMC pays roughly $260,000 in lodging taxes (including some meals tax from their Highland Center, which has to pay the meals portion because they have a liquor license).

But the RMC doesn’t pay. Never has.

If you’re familiar with the two, you might say, “Hey, wait, but the RMC huts are simple, not the full service hotels the AMC offers.” And you would be right. But the AMC pays the lodging tax on all their huts’ operations, including the year round operations of huts like Carter Notch and Zealand, which, in the winter, are just a caretaker, just like the RMC’s huts.

Add to this mix that the Dartmouth Outing Club, which runs seven cabins that are open to the public and one lodge, reportedly does not pay the lodging tax either. And the Mount Washington Observatory does not either, and they provide accommodations for some guided climbers. I’m still waiting to hear back from the Harvard Mountaineering Club about their cabin in Huntington Ravine, but there are a lot of questions floating around.

I’m still trying to sort out who should be doing what. There are some exemptions out there, like one for non-profits running educational programs (the Observatory pointed that one out), but the fact that one non-profit is paying the tax while others aren’t does make you wonder. I’ve been on and off the phone with the state Department of Revenue Administration about this, but I’ve still got a ways to go before I’m clear.

Why does this matter? Because the state is starving for money, firstly, and they (or we, as it is government by and for the people) can’t afford to let money fall through the cracks. But more importantly if a non profit is offering a service that competes with local businesses (like, for example, lodging) they shouldn’t have any unfair advantages without providing some public good. Tax payers agree to give these organizations a break, but they have to be fulfilling some larger purpose. If a hiker hostel in Gorham has to pay 9 percent to the state for housing hikers then the AMC should, the DOC should, and so should everyone else. If the AMC or DOC is offering some additional educational opportunity, or something else, then there is a justification for the break. But as a matter of fairness, local businesses can’t compete with organizations that get a 9 percent subsidy. It would be unreasonable to ask them to.

So, as I look into this story, I’m wading through tax statutes, DRA rules, and legalese. It isn’t the most exciting topic, but it is something worth getting to the bottom of.

But it does take a toll on the daily news pace. Try to go through a crash course in tax law in a day, and see how many other news stories you can write.

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