New process for tourism dollars; critics call it a political payoff
The newly-seated Sullivan County Legislature on January 26 voted to change the way it awards about $700,000 in room-tax revenue to promote tourism in the county. For the past 12 years, the legislature has negotiated with and awarded a yearly contract to the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA).
Now, however, the legislature is issuing a request for proposals (RFP) and will be accepting proposals from SCVA and other organizations. The move prompted a parade of SCVA members to speak up during the public comment period at the monthly county meeting in Monticello.
Several members of the SCVA board said the timing of the change could be harmful to the tourism industry, which is the second largest industry in the county.
Stacy Cohen, owner of the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distillery, warned that issuing an RFP at this time would disrupt the production of promotional materials for the coming summer season, which are already being prepared. She said, “This is the only time that we have to put our marketing and advertising together for the summer.”
Jill Wiener, proprietor of Earth Girl Pottery, echoed that idea. She said, “We are just in the midst of putting the final touches on our travel guide, which this year is expanded to have a whole new wedding and celebrations section, we’re in the middle of putting together driving tours for the county; this is very badly timed.”
Another criticism of the move was that it was not done in the open. Democrats in the legislature now outnumber Republicans seven to two; Republican legislator Alan Sorensen said that all of the discussion about SCVA and the RFP process was done in the Democratic caucus, and he had only learned about the vote an hour before the meeting started.
SCVA has about 300 members, and they were not invited to provide input regarding the matter. Laurie Stuart, publisher of The River Reporter, said, “I advocate that you take a look at the process, and that you include stakeholders, that you take a step back, that you table the resolution.”
Kitty Vetter made a motion to table it, and that was defeated 4-5.
SCVA members were particularly upset to discover that a new non-profit organization, called Sullivan County Tourism & Promotion, registered with the state in December 2011 and with the county on January 25. The three signatories on the related paperwork all have strong connections to the county Democratic party: Bill Liblick is the chairman of the Liberty Democratic Committee, Neil Gilberg is a former county clerk and is now an Advocate for Business in the administration of Governor Cuomo in Albany, and Donna Schick is the secretary of the Sullivan County Democratic Committee.
Asked if the organization was going to submit an RFP, Liblick said, “I don’t know.”
There was also a discussion about whether an RFP was a legal requirement. County Attorney Sam Yasgur twice responded to questions from the lawmakers about that and said an RFP was one way to proceed, but there were other methods that could also be used.
Legislator Cindy Geiger said that she felt it was her obligation to open up the process to bidding to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used in the best way possible.
Roberta Byron-Lockwood, president and CEO of SCVA said the organization is funded by room-tax dollars, which come from visitors who come to the county, not by taxpayers who live in the county.
In the end, Democrats Jonathan Rouis and Ira Steingart joined Republicans Vetter and Sorensen in voting against the measure, while Democrats Geiger, Scott Samuelson, Cora Edwards, Kathy LaBuda and Gene Benson voted in favor.