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FAYETTEVILLE -- Because of a recent change to state law, the city and Advertising and Promotion Commission will no longer make public detailed information about hotel, motel and restaurant taxes businesses pay -- or do not pay -- each month.

For years, the Advertising and Promotion Commission posted tax collections from individual businesses on its website. Commissioners in their monthly agenda packets also received a list of restaurants and hotels that were behind on their payments.

The city's Accounting Division made tax information available to anyone who requested it, too.

Those practices ended, however, in mid-July when Act 1102, sponsored by Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, took effect.

The law, which cleared the state House of Representatives, 80-4, and the Arkansas Senate, 31-3, in March, exempts hospitality tax records from disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

"It's not anyone's business what a private business owner is grossing every month," Neal, who owns Neal's Cafe in Springdale, said after a Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Committee meeting Monday. "Your friends, your neighbors, your competition -- you don't need them to know how much you're making."

Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, disagreed.

"It's the public's right to know this stuff -- if the [hospitality] taxes are being collected," Larimer said. "There's just no way of knowing that now. We'll just kind of have to take their word that they're doing it or wait for the state to act on those who are delinquent."

Paul Becker, Fayetteville finance director, and Kym Hughes, executive director of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission, said Monday they didn't have any choice about adopting recent policy changes.

Hughes said the commission was simply complying with state law by amending its bylaws Monday.

"We no longer can post those things," she said.

Becker said it wasn't uncommon in the past for business owners to request information about a competitor.

"You can essentially extract and estimate sales volume," he added. "That was being done all over the place."

Earlier this year, state Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, asked Attorney General Leslie Rutledge whether Act 1102 prohibits cities from voluntarily disclosing hospitality tax data.

Rutledge's office said that it does.

"If a record is exempt under the [Freedom of Information Act], the agency holding the record may not disclose it even if it wishes to," Rutledge stated in a June 24 opinion.

City Attorney Kit Williams in a July 1 memo said he was not convinced by the attorney general's interpretation of the state's open records law.

"Since this issue has yet to be considered and decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court, there is no clear and final answer," Williams said.

Nevertheless, he advised the city's Accounting Division to stop releasing hospitality tax data and instructed the city prosecutor's office to continue their attempts to recover overdue taxes.

Becker said city officials will continue to track individual businesses' tax data internally but will not make that information publicly available. Total citywide tax proceeds will still be reported by the city and the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

The city collects a 2 percent tax on hotel stays and food purchases in Fayetteville restaurants. Half of the tax goes to the Fayetteville Parks and Recreation Department's park development fund. The other half goes to the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Metro on 08/18/2015

Print Headline: City won't post restaurant taxes

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