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New hotel fee brings big hurt to low- and fixed-income guests
$5-per-night fee will generate an estimated $150 million for state transportation projects
Justin Biggerstaff and his family make their way to their Gainesville Inn and Suites hotel room Friday afternoon. A temporary hardship forced the family into the extended stay hotel, which will be subject to an additional $5-per-day fee when the states transportation bill goes into effect Wednesday. - photo by Scott Rogers

The tired eyes of Justin Biggerstaff grew more weary when he learned that he’ll soon be paying an extra $5 per night for his family, which includes three young kids, to stay at the Gainesville Inn and Suites on Jesse Jewell Parkway over the next month or so while he seeks permanent housing.

It may not sound like a lot, but for those individuals and families residing in extended-stay hotels across the city, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck or on fixed incomes, the fee can add up quickly.

“It’s stressful, but we’re making it,” said Biggerstaff, who works at a local poultry plant. “As long as it keeps a roof over our head.”

The new fee on hotel and motel stays was tacked on to a transportation bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year and will generate an estimated $150 million annually to pay for road and bridge improvements across Georgia.

It takes effect Wednesday and is a substitute for a similar charge proposed on rental cars but later scrapped.

A $5 fee on rental cars would only generate upward of $73 million annually, according to state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

The transportation funding bill also includes a 26-cent-per-gallon state excise tax on gasoline and fees on electric vehicle owners to raise an overall estimate of $850 million or more in the first year.

Lawmakers who supported the bill said they wanted to pay for transportation projects with money raised from motorists and businesses that most heavily use the state’s roadways, creating a kind of direct line between users and costs.

And that’s why the apparent contradiction of imposing a new fee on hotel and motel stays caught those in the tourism industry off guard. The fee had not been discussed publicly before lawmakers approved it.

The state is counting on hotel occupancy rates to remain stable, or even grow, and pegged the reasoning for the new fee on the argument that out-of-state visitors would cover a large portion of the money raised.

But that’s an argument that tourism agencies have disputed, warning that in-state business travel, future hotel development, and the ability to attract conventions and trade shows could be in jeopardy when the new fee takes effect.

But the biggest hurt is likely to be felt by low-income Georgians who rely on extended-stay hotels for transitional housing.

It also could be costly for those displaced from their homes, as was the case following an ice storm in February that knocked out power to thousands of Hall County residents, sending families scrambling for hotel rooms that booked up fast.

The impact of the fee is greater for cheaper rooms, and a night in a hotel or motel in Gainesville already comes with a 13 percent tax when state and local charges are applied.

Critics have argued that the new fee would have been more equitable had it been implemented instead as a percent tax on the price of a room.

Paying an extra $5 a night at a five-star hotel in Atlanta won’t mean much to those guests, but it’s a significant expense on a $40-per-night room at an extended-stay hotel in Gainesville. (The fee is dropped after 30 days in the same hotel or motel).

Jennifer Johnson ran her hands through her hair and massaged her face as she made her way out the door of the Gainesville Inn and Suites, where advertised room rates range from $39.99 a night to $189.99 per week, last week to look for a full-time job.

A bad living situation in Buford, coupled with a lack of reliable transportation, cost her a job in the fast-food industry, she said.

So Johnson made her way north to Gainesville, but was surprised to learn that getting a good night’s sleep will soon cost her more money.

That’s a feeling shared by many of those who temporarily call extended-stay hotels in the city their home.

“It will certainly hurt” our customers, said Suzanne Moses, general manager of the Sun Suites on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Rates at the Sun Suites vary between $220 and $260 per week.

Moses said she is concerned about the impact the new fee will have on occupancy rates, but also worries about the cost to her customers, which include traveling construction and utility workers, retirees and even students in Gainesville for sporting events held at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue.

Gary Brown, a disabled military veteran, said he couldn’t understand why lawmakers had targeted lower-income people with the new fee.

While he won’t be immediately impacted because he’s already been staying at the Sun Suites for longer than 30 days, Brown is worried about how the additional expense will hurt him if he needs to move to another hotel in another city.

“Holy moly,” he said. “People who stay in hotels like this can’t afford this (fee).”