The Yates County Legislature has reappointed the Yates County Chamber of Commerce as the organization that oversees programs to promote tourism in the county.
The decision did not come without significant discussion, and there is likely to be more during the upcoming budget workshops, which begin Oct. 24. The conversations could open up old wounds from previous clashes over the county’s occupancy tax law, passed in 2007, but litigated by some area individuals — one who has begun asking questions about tourism promotion efforts again.
What has been a routine appointment in past years, was approved Oct. 11 by a vote of 11 - 3, with District I Legislators Gary Montgomery and Elden Morrison and District II Legislator Terry Button voting against the appointment.
The Tourism Promotion Agency oversees the use of funds for tourism marketing, and must be designated for the county to be eligible for I Love NY grant funds. The grant application for 2017 is due in early November, according to Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Linehan. That I Love NY grant is worth $37,000.
When the resolution was offered, Montgomery asked if there might be a downside to delaying the business until a future meeting. Montgomery said there have been discussions “behind the scene” about the appointment.
Morrison said he has had questions for some time, saying, “I have never seen a budget for the Yates County Tourism Agency,” and said he would like to see it before voting on the designation.
Legislative Chairman Timothy Dennis agreed the tourism promotion funds are public and the legislature has a right to review spending, but noted the information is supplied when requested.
Other legislators said it’s an issue that could be discussed, but it’s too late this year with the grant deadline approaching.
The background discussions Montgomery mentioned were with Linehan, Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Waye, Montgomery, County Treasurer/Budget Officer Nonie Flynn and Brian Zerges, owner of Finger Lakes Premiere Properties and the Best Western Inn.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Zerges presented three specific actions he feels should be taken.
Zerges suggested the legislature reconsider the method for selecting participants on the Tourism Advisory Committee and strengthen the committee’s mandate. The Tourism Advisory Committee recommends which special projects should be funded with occupancy tax funds collected in Yates County. It does not have any oversight related to the I Love NY grant funds. Members of the committee represent lodging and tourism businesses, the county administrator, the budget officer, and a member of the legislature, according to Linehan.
Revenues collected through the occupancy tax law, originally passed in 2007 and renewed in August, are split between the county’s general fund and the programs that promote tourism in the county.
The 2016 budget anticipates $428,000 in total occupancy tax revenue, with approximately $222,000 being distributed to the TPA. The balance goes to the county’s general fund.
Linehan says the TPA budget of roughly $190,000 consists of the occupancy tax revenue, the I Love NY grant and fees paid by advertising partner businesses. From the $190,000, $67,000 is given to Wine Country Tourism Alliance, and $26,800 is given to Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. The $37,000 I Love NY grant is matched by funds from the county, and that pot of money pays for tourism promotion items approved by the state. Such items are printing of the Yates County Travel guide, postage to mail guides to potential customers, promotions with the Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council, travel show fees, and other advertising expenses. The tourism promotion funds cannot be used for overhead costs, explains Linehan, who adds the Chamber of Commerce budget is a separate spending plan.
Zerges said there should be more transparency and reporting on the results of the county’s tourism marketing. He suggested the strategic marketing plan should be available online at the county’s website.
Zerges also said there should be improved tracking and reporting of return on investment for the funds that are spent.
Linehan routinely makes reports to the legislature, updating them about tourism promotion spending and reporting statistics on visits. His most recent report was during the August legislature meeting. Linehan says he submits quarterly reports to Empire State Economic Development.
In 2007 Zerges and others strongly opposed the adoption of the 4 percent occupancy tax law that included vacation rental businesses. He was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Yates County and then County Treasurer Bonnie Percy (now a legislator) in an effort to have the law declared unconstitutional.
District III Legislator Mark Morris, who, as chairman of the Government Operations Committee, presented the resolution for the appointment, said he had contacted Finger Lakes Economic Development CEO Steve Griffin about that agency taking over the TPA responsibility after the issue was discussed at length during the October committee meeting.
Contacted after the legislature meeting, Linehan said Morris had not contacted him about the possibility of any changes. He said he met with Montgomery and Zerges for two hours on Sept. 27, and he answered their questions then.