Lawsuit in VLN debate? Chamber says no
by Staff Writer
Multiple sources say Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell has recently hinted the organization might sue the north Mecklenburg towns to force the release of tourism tax dollars to Visit Lake Norman.
Contacted Wednesday, an astonished Russell denied ever threatening legal action by the chamber against the towns. He did say he has recently spoken with Huntersville and Cornelius town managers in an attempt to break the log jam between the towns and the tourism agency. He has not spoken with the Davidson town manager.
“The chamber board has not discussed – nor will it discuss – any law suit,” Russell said. “… I’m personally disappointed to know that anybody would perceive that from any comments I have made. …”
Towns, the tourism agency and the chamber have been locked in a heated debate since as early as January about control and use of the tourism taxes.
At issue now is the interlocal agreement that defines the relationship between the towns and Visit Lake Norman. That agreement ended July 1, and the towns have not transferred any revenues to the tourism agency. Visit Lake Norman is supposed to receive 28 percent of the towns’ hotel motel tax and 25 percent of the towns’ prepared food tax.
At the request of the chamber and hoteliers, House Speaker Thom Tillis pushed through legislation guaranteeing that percentage of revenue to Visit Lake Norman. The law, however, does not say when the towns have to turn over the money, and the towns could conceivably hold it until the final day of each fiscal year.
The towns, which appoint only three of 16 board members, want more control of the tourism agency and how it spends money. They want to appoint half of its board and executive committee.
Russell hinted the chamber might sue to force the towns to turn over that money without a finalized interlocal, a number of sources said.
Chamber Chairman Robert Reed echoed Russell’s statement that the chamber has not discussed and would not consider a lawsuit.
Discussions between the agencies are at a standstill as the towns have presented a number of proposed changes to the interlocal agreement, but the chamber and Visit Lake Norman either have not responded or can’t agree on the changes, officials said.
Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said he has heard that officials with the chamber or Visit Lake Norman have hinted at possible legal action against the towns. He called it “saber rattling.”
But he is unsure if the towns can turn over the money without an interlocal agreement.
“Even if we wanted to send them the funds, I don’t think legally we can,” he said. “It would be quasi against the law because we do not have rules to follow.”
Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis will not let this debate about the legislation continue forever, Tarte said. Tillis told the mayor recently that he’s prepared to withdraw the Visit Lake Norman legislation in September if the agency and the towns can’t reach an interlocal agreement, thus removing the state from the dispute.