Warren County commissioners postponed a decision on a 1-percent lodging tax increase, throwing a wrench into plans for a 20-field sports complex and the 1,400-acre Union Village project.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to table the vote on raising the lodging tax from 3 percent to 4 percent.
The decision was based on legal advice that the property for the sports complex — which would be financed with the tax proceeds — needed to be owned by Warren County before the tax is assessed.
The site is owned by Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices. Its transfer, to the county’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, is contingent on agreement on a tax-sharing plan for development of the proposed Union Village by Otterbein, which would include up to 4,500 homes.
“We can’t use this for a non-county-owned facility,” Commissioner Tom Grossmann said as a room full of people waited to comment or hear the decision. “I’m sorry this is being raised today with everybody that has come here.”
At the meeting, the commissioners were expected to approve the tax hike. It was enabled through a state law permitting the increase without allowing county voters a chance to roll back the tax through a referendum, or even to comment at a public meeting or hearing.
More than 50 people crowded the room, prompting staff to remove a temporary wall and add chairs. But no opportunity was made for public comment before tabling it.
The law permitting the tax increase calls for the tax to be used on a county-owned sports complex, not one owned by the bureau, which is not part of county government.
Officials said the problem was realized Tuesday morning after the commissioners consulted their lawyer in response to the advice of another lawyer involved in the process.
Before tabling it, the commissioners, Phil Smith, director of the bureau, and Bruce McGary, the assistant county prosecutor representing the commissioners, mulled potential options enabling the tax hike to be approved eventually.
“That’s not a fatal flaw,” Commissioner Dave Young said. “I think that can be overcome.”
Commissioner Pat South added, “It would be very inappropriate for us to move forward on what-ifs.”
McGary and Grossmann, an assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County, both said approving the tax hike as the law is written could leave the action open to legal challenge.
Afterward, one opponent, Ray Warrick, head of the Warren County Republican Party, said the law might have been too narrowly written to survive a legal challenge.
McGary said the county would probably also need to change the plan agreed upon for development of Union Village and the sports complex.
The plan calls for the sports complex to be developed by Nov. 1, 2017.
After the meeting, Smith said he was unsure what would be his next step to win approval for the sports complex, which has been on the drawing board for at least a decade.
He said he would either turn to the state legislature to change the law or work to get Otterbein to turn over the sports complex site to the county or visitors bureau.
“Or both,” Smith concluded.
No date was set for reconsideration of the tax, which is expected to finance the $10 million complex.