Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Candidates in three Calaveras County Board of Supervisors races, appearing at a forum Thursday night in San Andreas, clearly separated themselves from their opponents on the issue of increasing the county's lodging tax.

The forum was hosted by Citizens for a Better Calaveras, a group organized in hopes of putting a measure before county voters next year to lift the 6 percent tax to 10 percent. Officially known as the transient occupancy tax, it is paid by guests of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals and other lodgings.

The proposed revisions to the county's TOT ordinance would increase funding that already goes to the Calaveras Visitors Bureau but would also dedicate some of the revenues for nonprofits like the county's fair, Parks and Recreation Commission, Arts Council, Humane Society, senior center and Friends of the Library.

District 4 Supervisor Tom Tryon gave the strongest rejection of the measure.

"The last two times it was on the ballot, I wrote the ballot argument against it ... I'd be very happy to write the ballot argument again," Tryon said, noting two previous initiatives' failure. "What you're looking at here is the worst of all worlds, in my opinion, which is ballot box budgeting."

Tryon's opponent, Debbie Ponte, took an opposite stance.

"It will be up to the voters to decide overall. I will certainly support it from my point of view," Ponte said.

The former Angels Camp mayor said it worked in the incorporated city.

"We raised our TOT from 6 to 10 percent and it caused no decrease in stay in our hotel rooms ... and it helped public safety and the city budget," she said. "I find that when people call 1-800-LODGING, the first question out of people's mouth is not, 'What's your TOT tax?'"

Tryon, who ran for statewide office multiple times as the Libertarian Party nominee, took every opportunity to reiterate his view that government and volunteer organizations, whether parks, senior centers, arts or otherwise, ought to remain separate by all means.

"I totally disagree with the premise that's being put forward here tonight. We're not about to disband any county departments, the animal shelter ... we're not going to lose the library. I don't think (nonprofits) are about to go away either," he said. "If you're going to give a devoted tax stream to these organizations, you're going to greatly diminish the concept of volunteering in Calaveras County for these types of organizations. As the economy improves, there will be increased funding."

Ponte varied on government's role, depending on the issue, leaning against a county parks and recreation department or an increase in direct government involvement in senior centers. However, she noted transportation for isolated seniors seems to plague senior centers and public transit has a role in that.

"We have a transportation system," she said. "It's weak ... but it's something that we can build upon."

Tryon said assistance for those who "need some extra help for child care for employment" can be provided but qualified that response.

"We didn't establish government in this country so we could have child care for people," he said. "Child care is the responsibility of parents … it can't just be open-ended. It can't be without a means test. This can't become another entitlement … we don't want to be in a position where we continue to subsidize bad decisions."

Ponte took a pragmatic approach.

"Availability of child care is very difficult throughout the area ... as is affordability," she said. "Granted maybe making decisions earlier in their lives about how many kids to have weren't considered ... but bottom line, they're here."

In the District 2 race, Chris Wright supported the TOT proposal. "It's a great benefit to all these organizations here as well as the Sheriff's Department will get 20 percent of the revenues that are brought in as well," he said.

His runoff opponent Bryce Randall said that, as a supervisor, he would vote to let a measure with enough signatures go to voters but he could not support any tax increase.

"It doesn't matter who's paying it. It's still a tax," Randall said. "Everything you're asking for is great ... but we have to live within our means."

District 1 challenger Cliff Edson favored the measure. "One of the things that attracted me to it is how they were going to give back to the people who were collecting (it)," Edson said. "Tourism is our main industry right now and we need to foster that."

Incumbent Gary Tofanelli said it sounded better as originally proposed in a 2011 budget hearing by outgoing District 2 Supervisor Steve Wilensky.

"Sometime during the course between then and now, it's morphed into, 'Let's take the whole 10 percent and just divide it how we want to' ... with none of these other organizations do you have any elected accountability. They can do what they want with funds and you can't say anything to anyone about it."

Tofanelli suggested a split of 40 percent of the revenues each to the Visitors Bureau and Sheriff's Office to make it more palatable.