After months of controversy around the state’s COVID-19 isolation and quarantine facility in Centralia, at least one local concern may soon be addressed: tourism tax.
Local officials — perhaps most loudly, County Commissioner Sean Swope — have complained that the state-run facility deprives the county of lodging tax revenue generally collected from lodging facilities such as hotels and motels. Swope recently estimated the loss of tax revenue to run more than $30,000.
In a letter this month to Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer, Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah said it has come to the Department of Health’s (DOH) attention that lodging tax wouldn’t be generated under its long-term lease, but that the agency “does intend to provide relief under this arrangement as much as is allowed by governing financial stipulations and regulations.”
The correspondence may ease one source of tension between local and state officials over the quarantine facility, which was ignited soon after locals learned of the plan. Officials from the state Department of Health have apologized for not notifying local officials sooner.
But opposition remains. Last week, Swope took to KELA’s morning talk show “Let’s Talk About It” hosted by The Chronicle Publisher Chad Taylor after obtaining a copy of the state’s lease agreement with Lakeview Inn.
“Get this: we got the contract,” Swope said, going on to critique how much the state is paying for the building.
According to the agreement between DOH and the owner of the 40-unit motel, the state is paying $126,472.50 per month. The sum averages out to an approximately $105 nightly room fee, although the facility has only sporadically been occupied.
Swope also questioned why Lewis County was chosen by DOH — a common refrain among those opposed to the facility — labeling Lewis County as “the lowest-vaccinated county in Washington,” though several other counties have lower vaccination rates. When Taylor said the occupants were sick, Swope asked, “are they, though?”
DOH’s lease spans from May 1, 2020, to April 30 of next year, despite state officials telling The Chronicle the agreement went until December. DOH officials appear to have been referencing the agreement’s termination clause, which allows the state to end its contract in December with 30 days notice.
State officials say the facility is temporary, and that they’re working to find a new location this summer, although no definitive timeline has been laid out.
In a letter to Shah last month, Meyer also criticized DOH for shelling out so much money to occupy the motel.
“While it has been said you cannot put a price on health, it seems as though your agency has done just that while, at the same time, ignoring applicable zoning laws,” he wrote.
On the radio, Swope said the “residential rental agreement” violates the parcel’s zoning.
“For you to go outside the zoning and put something in is breaking the law,” he said. “It’s criminal.”
DOH spokesman Cory Portner said that’s not the case.
The department “consulted with county zoning officials while securing the lease,” he said in an email. “DOH was informed that it would need to apply for a conditional use permit if the site would be in use longer than 18 months. As DOH has no intent to use the site for 18 months, the agency did not pursue a conditional use permit.”
Lewis County has also used hotels to house locals who came in contact with COVID-19 with no other quarantine options. Those agreements, according to Public Health Director JP Anderson, are monthly. When asked about the county’s own use of local inns to quarantine individuals, Swope said he was unfamiliar with the specifics.
He added that his “big stink” is that DOH was able to occupy the Lakeview Inn without jumping through zoning hoops that generally trip up locals.
State officials have pointed to the state of emergency in justifying their quarantine and isolation facility, which houses individuals from across the state — or those arriving at ports — who have come in contact with the virus and have no other options to isolate.
In response to Meyer, Shah again wrote that “DOH has the affirmative duty and statutory authority to exercise necessary health-related disease control authority in an emergency,” and that the state “strongly maintains its right to utilize said current facility in Lewis County” to protect public health.
In his own letter, Meyer specifically cited state law requiring motel operators to acquire annual operating licenses. He also said DOH is violating a Centralia city code prohibiting people from staying in motels beyond 30 consecutive days.
But the code doesn’t appear to be enforced in other situations.
Tasha Berg, who manages Centralia’s Quality Inn and OYO Hotel, estimates that at least 200 individuals or families are currently living in Centralia hotels or motels, in violation of that code.
That number has increased over the pandemic, she said, and includes families with “good jobs” unable to find housing.
Berg also took issue with Swope’s repeated complaint that the state-run facility is having a major impact on the local economy by taking a motel off the market during busy sports tournament weekends.
“I personally see absolutely no difference since they turned that into a quarantine center,” she told The Chronicle. “Those 40 rooms doesn’t make a difference on a high scale.”
Plus, Berg said the Lakeview Inn was always “off the beaten path,” as opposed to the group of Centralia inns generally accommodating waves of weekend visitors.