The Sullivan County Legislature voted five to three with one abstention in favor of granting an additional 7.5%of the county bed tax to the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA), on top of the 85% of the bed tax already guaranteed to them by law, to pay for a local matching grants advertising program. The program, which was funded with 15% of the bed tax last year, subsidized tourism-related businesses in the county with money to advertise in local media outlets, including The River Reporter.
The vote came during a day in which the lawmakers were given a presentation about the county’s revenues so far this year, as county officials begin the process of preparing next year’s budget, which will likely be even more challenging than the budget for last year. The vote also came two months after the legislature considered not renewing the contract with the SCVA, and instead putting out to bid the operation of tourism promotion in the county to any interested and qualified parties.
At the meeting at the government center on April 19, legislator Gene Benson, who has been the harshest critic of the SCVA, said he could not vote for the resolution because staff of the SCVA had not answered all of his questions regarding the organization’s performance.
Legislator Ira Steingart said he supported the resolution because, “I realize how important the local tourism industry is. This money would be spent with local businesses and it would help local businesses.”
Legislator Cora Edwards echoed Benson’s concern. She said, “What’s the return on the investment? So far, nobody has been able to say the multiplier effect will bring us, for instance, $4 million in additional sales tax revenue.”
Legislator Kitty Vetter said, “The tourist business is our face in this county, and I think those are dollars well spent. If we give it back to the Sullivan County Visitors Association, we are improving the ability of the small businesses to get their ads and information out there.”
Chairman Scott Samuelson noted that, in August, a request for proposals will be going out to organizations to handle the promotion of tourism in 2013. Still, he said, this resolution should go forward because, “These are dollars that go back directly to the tourism-based industry, to the individual owners, the small businesses who are struggling to bring people into their businesses.”
Legislator Kathy LaBuda said she preferred that the 7.5% go into the general fund, which would benefit not just the tourism businesses but all 76,000 residents of the county.
Ultimately, Edwards abstained and Bensen, LaBuda and Cindy Gieger voted against the resolution, which will be voted on again at the full board meeting on April 26.
Earlier in the day, the lawmakers discussed county tax revenues and spending, and the beginning of the budget process for 2013. For 2012, the outgoing lawmakers used $6.9 million from reserve funds, or surpluses, to balance the budget.
According to county manager David Fanslau, if lawmakers were to create next year’s budget without using any money from reserves, and costs and revenues remain the same as this year, that would require a 14% property tax increase, which is far above the 2% property tax cap which has been mandated by lawmakers in Albany, but which can be overridden by a super-majority vote in the county legislature.
It is too early to know how much surplus or reserve may be available at the end of the year, but it seems possible that the figure will be about $3 million. For various reasons, auditors and accounting professionals believe reserve or surplus funds for the county should be at about $10 million.
Deputy county manager Josh Potosek told lawmakers that there were a few unexpected expenses so far this year, but the general trend is that revenues and spending are within projected ranges for 2012.
Additionally, there was a bit of good news: the county saved about $500,000 this year because of the unusually mild winter, which resulted in much lower costs for the salting and plowing of roads. Also, the county has received about $300,000 more in sales tax so far this year than in the same period last year.