When it comes to being an elected county commissioner, protecting your rights and the interests of Lewis County is always at the forefront of my job. And when you consider that I am the elected county commissioner representing District 1, in which the city of Centralia falls within district boundaries, you can understand why I’ve taken a vested, vocal interest as a commissioner in the Isolation and Quarantine Center that was installed by the Washington State Department of Health at the Centralia-based Lakeview Inn.
As a business, when you apply for or renew your business license, you become permitted for specific, approved activities as a business, in line with your respective zoning requirements. In the case of the Lakeview Inn, they are permitted as a business to be a motel. They are defined as “facility type: motel” in their Department of Health documents.
And, as such, being defined as a “motel,” and permitted for such activities, that means that the Lakeview Inn is subject to certain taxes, such as the lodging tax (also known as “heads in beds”), which then get injected back into our community by way of our local lodging tax advisory committee (LTAC) boards.
If you aren’t familiar, lodging tax dollars in Centralia and wider Lewis County power a great number of local nonprofits and events. Many of our local nonprofits and event producers depend on this tax distribution each year to make their respective projects successful.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, that the Washington State Department of Health has informed us that they are “unable” to collect lodging tax dollars and distribute them back to our county because, per state law, hotel and motel lodging is defined as a stay less than 30 days in duration. And, because the State Department of Health has booked the entire Lakeview Inn facility for more than 30 days — regardless of how many guests cycle in and out — they say they do not currently have a legal mechanism to pay us the lodging tax dollars that our city and county would otherwise be entitled to, per state law.
For us here in Centralia, that means more than $30,000 in lost tourism and lodging tax revenue that would otherwise be distributed here to our local tourism and nonprofit entities.
When you consider that the U.S. Census Bureau says the average individual wage in the U.S. is about $35,000, that means the state, due to their tax oversight, will basically have eliminated what otherwise could have been a full-time position for a local nonprofit by way of lost LTAC revenue distribution.
The point I’m trying to make is that asking tough questions about the Isolation and Quarantine Center facility isn’t just about COVID-19. Actually, COVID-19 is a very small part of many ripple effects that could be created by the State Department of Health’s actions to insert this facility in our community in the manner that they did. Even as we are coming out of the pandemic, the effect of the state Department of Health’s actions will continue to be felt by our community economically.
When the state decided to take these actions, to establish this facility, they didn’t come to us for permits or mutual partnership as the local governing bodies. They never contacted the City of Centralia. The state Department of Health didn’t go in front of a hearing examiner to make sure what they were doing was 100% in line with local codes and regulations. They didn’t ask permission even once. In this case, the state jumped every hoop they could to make this facility happen.
Imagine if you or I, as citizens, tried to skip the same regulatory steps the state Department of Health did here, in this situation. How much do you think the fines would be?
And what do you think will stop the state from doing it again? They certainly won’t fine themselves.
This “residential rental agreement” between the state Department of Health and the Lakeview Inn doesn’t even have a clear termination date. The state says one thing. The contract says another. Nothing in the contract even mentions COVID-19 or the state of emergency.
As one of your elected county commissioners, and the commissioner elected specifically to represent the residents of Centralia at the county level, it’s important to me that you understand that my motivations for questioning this facility and the state’s actions are rooted firmly in a solid foundation of wanting what is right and fair for our county residents, with respect to our local codes and long-term planning.
We need to make sure that the state is following the same rules and laws (and fair public notice requirements) that you and I are required to follow when implementing these types of operations and activities into a community, especially a community that is not their own.
Sean Swope is a first-term Lewis County commissioner.