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2/17/2012 10:15:00 AM
Lake County agrees to let tourism group collect hotel tax dollars

Rich Bird, Post-Tribune Correspondent

HAMMOND — In a move designed to streamline the collection of the county’s innkeeper tax and provide more detailed information to the officials who promote the area, officials have inked a deal allowing the Lake County tourism bureau to directly collect the revenue.

Members of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority board on Thursday unanimously approved the intergovernmental agreement with the offices of the Lake County treasurer and auditor. Those officials signed off on the agreement in recent weeks.

The board also approved a resolution establishing an Innkeeper Trust Fund, which according to Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the authority, is essentially a bank account where the revenue checks can be deposited.

Until now, the taxes were collected by the county and distributed back to tourism officials in a lump sum through the county’s budgeting process. However, that lump sum did not include the details of which hotels were paying.

In recent months, Batistatos has appeared before the County Council to push for the change; he had the backing of officials like Treasurer John Petalas.

“(Tourism officials) are in a better position to do that because they are more familiar with the hotels in the area and how many are in each hotel,” Petals said. “Whenever we received monthly reports, we really had no way of knowing what the (hotels’) occupancy was or how many were paying the tax. This was a way to keep the count more honest.”

With tourism officials now in charge of the process from start to finish, Batistatos said, the authority will watch for violations of the extended stay law because there is reason to believe some of the county’s 40 hoteliers are not collecting the proper taxes due to a misunderstanding of the statute that was amended last year.

Specifically the law says that after 30 days in a room, an individual has taken up residency and is no longer subject to the innkeepers tax; however, companies have benefited from renting a room for as much as a year to house multiple employees for less than 30 days each.

In those cases, Batistatos said, the authority will work to better educate businesses on the law.

“I can’t underscore the relationship we enjoy with John Petalas and (Auditor) Peggy Katona,” Batistatos said. “… This is the evolution of a better business model, and I think everyone will be happy.”

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