Despite a plea from a representative from the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the full Coffee County Commission will decide whether or not to implement a $5-per-ticket tax to certain events in the county at the next full commission meeting.
Bonnaroo representative Sam Reed spoke Tuesday evening to the Coffee County Budget and Finance Committee asking the county not to pass the event tax the committee recommended in July. At the July 20 meeting, committee members discussed a resolution that would impose a tax on the “sale, resale or issuance of entertainment admission, tickets, tokens or bracelets.” The resolution amounted to a $5-per-ticket tax added to certain events with 500 or more attendees.
According to Commissioner Bobby Bryan, the resolution presented essentially mirrors the ticket tax ordinance the Manchester City Board of Mayor and Alderman passed in May, which will implement a tax on the sale or issuance of tickets to certain entertainment events over 350 persons.
Though not directly targeting Bonnaroo, the festival that is the center of a lawsuit between the county and city figured heavily in the discussion.
The committee unanimously passed the resolution recommendation in July, setting the stage for the bill to make its way to the full county commission.
During the committee meeting, Reed requested the county halt its recommendation to the full commission, citing the survival of the world-renowned festival in Coffee County. He began by acknowledging the festival’s two cancellations the last two years, as well as the festival’s decision to request an annexation into the city limits of Manchester.
“I know there is a certain amount of animosity in this room toward what we did earlier this year in asking the city to annex the property,” Reed said of the annexation request.
Reed said the annex was not something the festival wanted to do, but that the county was failing to follow through with a road project for which the state had approved a grant that would widen New Bushy Branch Road. The festival has earlier expressed that the road project was crucial to the viability of the property for Bonnaroo due to the permanent closer of “Exit 112.” The temporary interstate exit carried anywhere from 30-40% of Bonnaroo’s “customers” onto the festival grounds, Reed explained, which helped prevent gridlocked traffic in Manchester during the festival week.
Reed said the city of Manchester offered to follow through on the project, prompting the annexation request.
“We did that, quite frankly, not out of any animosity for anybody; we did it for our own survival,” Reed said of the annexation request. “We felt that it was a necessary step to protect our interests.”
According to Reed, the $5-per-ticket tax is “problematic” to the festival, as the fee may increase to a point where the festival would “reach a breaking point.” He said part of the negotiations with the annexation request were to include a similar measure with Manchester but that a per-ticket fee was “always part of our negotiations with the county.”
In the past, Bonnaroo has included a flat rate per-ticket fee that benefitted Coffee County in some way. For years, the ticket fee was given back to the county government to use as revenue throughout the fiscal year. That contract with Bonnaroo expired in 2017, however, and further negotiations in subsequent years have floundered, leading up to the annex request.
“We would have some fee … we would collect that would help the government pay off their portion of whatever the road debt or infrastructure upgrades were that happened outside of the site,” Reed said. “When the county tax was proposed, I asked the department of revenue about what the authority is around local governments to impose such taxes, and they suggested that we go and get a legal opinion regarding the ability of cities and counties to impose a ticket tax on events like us.”
The conclusion of the legal opinion, Reed said, was that the county’s ability to impose a ticket tax on Bonnaroo was “invalid without specific state authorization.”
He said an example of “specific state authorization” was the recent increases to the hotel/motel tax percentages the county imposed. The same goes for a ticket tax, Reed added. While some counties or municipalities have ticket taxes, those ordinances rely on specific authorizations passed on the state level, which makes Coffee County’s intention to impose the tax and Manchester’s recently-approved tax invalid. He said Bonnaroo would be asking Manchester to repeal its ticket tax at a future meeting and to allow Manchester and Bonnaroo to figure out a different arrangement for recouping finances.
“As for protecting ourselves from unlimited taxation, we, obviously, stand in opposition to the tax … we will have to challenge the tax in court,” Reed said, noting that the festival has secured legal representation to do that.
“Once you’ve had a chance to review the legal memo you will, I think, come to the conclusion that it’s shaky at best, in terms of the legal rationale for proposing the tax,” he said, adding that he did not want the committee to think Bonnaroo or its representatives were angry at all or trying to blame anyone for the tax. “We have to look out for ourselves, the long-term viability of the festival, particularly given an environment where we’ve now canceled the third Bonnaroo and are trying to salvage something for next year,” Reed said. “Allowing local entities unlimited taxation authority on us or our patrons is not something that we’re going to allow, particularly when the law is on our side.”
Following Reed’s comments Tuesday night meeting, a motion by Commissioner Lynn Sebourn to halt the recommendation to the full commission died for lack of second. The full commission will address the tax at its next meeting, which is set for Tuesday, Sept. 14.