Reply to: Revenue Section Telephone: (919) 716-6550 Fax: (919) 715-3550
23 January 2003
Rebecca Eggers-Gryder Eggers, Eggers, Eggers, and Eggers Attorneys and Counselors at Law Post Office Box 248 Boone, North Carolina 28807
Re: Advisory Opinion: Authority of Town of Seven Devils to Levy an Occupancy Tax; Sess. Law 2002-94
Dear Ms. Eggers-Gryder:
You have requested our opinion as to whether the Town of Seven Devils has authority to levy a total of 6% occupancy tax in Watagua county under Senate Bill 1195, entitled “An Act to Authorize the Towns in Avery County to Levy an Additional 3% Occupancy Tax.” A copy of
S.B. 1195 (Sess. Law 2002-94) is attached hereto as Exhibit A. For the reasons which follow, we agree with your conclusion that the bill may not, in fact, authorize the levying of the tax throughout the entire town of Seven Devils and may therefore run afoul of the uniformity provision of the North Carolina Constitution.
Section 16.2(a) of Chapter 439 of the 2001 Session Laws authorized certain cities to levy a 3% room occupancy tax. The scope of the grant of authority is as follows: “This section applies only to cities in Avery County that are not otherwise authorized to levy a room occupancy tax.” Sess. Law 2001-439, § 16.2(a).1 We understand that the Town of Seven Devils is located within both Avery and Watagua counties. The Town of Seven Devils is not otherwise authorized to levy an occupancy tax. Sess. Law 2002-94 added a new subsection granting cities that levy the tax under § 16.2(a) authority to levy an additional 3% room occupancy tax. Sess. Law 2002-94, § 16.2(a1).
More specifically, you have inquired whether the legislative grant of authority to “cities in
1 Avery county had been authorized to levy a 3% occupancy tax by Sess. Law 1993-472, as amended by Sess. Law 1997-410. Sess. Law 1993-472 was repealed by Sess. Law 2001-439, § 16.1. Watagua county is not authorized to levy a room occupancy tax.
23 January 2003
Avery County” is sufficient to include the portion of the town located in Watagua county, and, if not, whether such taxing scheme violates the uniformity provision of the North Carolina Constitution, which provides, in part, that “No class of property shall be taxed except by uniform rule, and every classification shall be made by general law uniformly applicable in every county, city and town, and other unit of local government.” N.C. Const. Art. V, § 2(2).
Uniformity of taxation is required throughout the territorial limits of a taxing district. Hajoca Corp. v. Clayton, 277 N.C. 560, 569 (1971). Here, there is uniformity within the taxing district, the Town of Seven Devils, only if the tax is imposed throughout the town, including that part in Watagua county. If the legislative grant of authority to “cities in Avery County” does not encompass the portion of the town located in Watagua county, the tax would not be uniform throughout the taxing jurisdiction and would appear to run afoul of the uniformity provision.
The question of the extent of the grant of the authority is more difficult. We are aware of no authority supporting or defeating the proposition that a grant of taxing power to a town in a county, expressed in terms of territorial authority to tax, extends to that portion of the town without the county. Arguably, because a portion of the town is “in Avery County,” the entire town as a taxing unit would be authorized to levy the tax. This interpretation appears particularly viable in view of the requirement that statutes must be construed in a way that will not offend the constitution.
On the other hand, because cities and counties do not possess inherent authority to levy taxes, see Hajoca, 277 N.C. at 569, any grant of taxing power from the General Assembly must be strictly construed. Kenny Co. v. Brevard, 217 N.C. 269, 272 (1940) (“the powers of municipalities relating to taxation are strictly construed”). At first blush, this principle weighs against a finding that the portion of the town not in Avery county is authorized to levy the tax. Further, a tax imposed without authority is an illegal tax. Redevelopment Comm. v. Guilford County, 274 N.C. 585, 589 (1968).
On balance, we cannot advise that the legislation, if challenged in court, could withstand an argument that the grant of authority to “cities in Avery County” does not extend to that portion of the town in Watagua county. If the grant were found to be limited to that portion of the town in Avery county, such a tax would likely be held to violate the uniformity provision of the Constitution. Our conclusion relates to both the initial 3% tax as well as the additional 3% levy.
As your letter points out, the Town of Beech Mountain is similarly situated to that of Seven Devils, in that it is located in both Avery and Watagua counties. Of particular note is the methods the legislature chose in granting the Town of Beech Mountain taxing authority. Originally, the General Assembly specifically authorized the Town of Beech Mountain to levy an occupancy tax. Sess. Law 1987-376. Later, the legislature divided the town into two taxing districts, the Town of Beech Mountain and Beech Mountain District W (that portion of Beech Mountain located in Watagua county). Sess. Law 2001-434, § 10. Interestingly, the legislature Rebecca Eggers-Gryder
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followed neither course of action in Sess. Laws 2001-439 and 2002-94. In light of this variation, we can discern no specific legislative intent to grant the Town of Seven Devils, as such, taxing authority. This conclusion is further reinforced by G.S. § 160A-206, which provides: “A city shall have power to impose taxes only as specifically authorized by act of the General Assembly.” (emphasis added). Given the ambiguity of the operative language, we cannot advise that the legislature “specifically authorized” the Town of Devils taxing authority throughout the territorial limits of the city.
We finally observe that the recent legislation amended G.S. § 160A-215 to include “Seven Devils District W” in the list of municipalities that the General Assembly has authorized to levy the tax. Sess. Law 2002-94, § 4(g). The fact that there is no such municipality further confuses the issue. Clarifying legislation may be in order.
We hope the foregoing proves helpful.
Reginald L. Watkins Senior Deputy Attorney General
Kay Linn Miller Hobart Assistant Attorney General