Schoharie County chamber says tourism funds badly needed

County Chamber of Commerce tourism planners argued Wednesday that without the $140,500 in county fun

County Chamber of Commerce tourism planners argued Wednesday that without the $140,500 in county funds they’re seeking to promote tourism, the county risks losing out on additional sales tax revenue.

But County Treasurer William Cherry insists struggling county taxpayers can’t afford the request, which is more than triple what the county contributed to the tourism program this year.

“We have a chance to provide a benefit to Schoharie County taxpayers that probably no other program can provide,” said Old Stone Fort Museum Director Carle Kopecky during a chamber Tourism Committee informational meeting. The meeting was attended by eight members representing some of about 200 tourism-related businesses in the county.

Cherry, who was not at the evening meeting, said earlier Wednesday that funding the request would require an additional 1 percent increase in 2009 county property taxes, on top of a currently estimated 3.2 percent average tax increase.

“Given the state of the economy … and what people are going to face this year in home heating bills, I can’t justify it,” Cherry said.

Cherry, the county’s budget officer, said he is recommending only $10,000 for the chamber’s tourism promotion program in the tentative county budget. He plans to submit the spending proposal to supervisors in about two weeks.

The chamber program has been strapped for funds since the county’s largest single tourist attraction, Howe Caverns Inc., stopped contributing its typical $70,000 for promotion annually, chamber committee member Jason Stratton acknowledged.

Ownership of the caverns changed last spring and new administrators objected to chamber policies.

“The tourism program is already $30,000 in the hole,” Kopecky said. He and tourism coordinator Ellie Ganci said the county-designated program had to borrow $30,000 through the chamber to fund this year’s administrative costs after the county cut its request for $150,000 in 2008 to $45,000. That amount included a one-time $30,000 designated for a study of where county tourists come from, where they go and why.

Without the requested 2009 funds, which includes $40,000 in pay and benefits for a full-time tourism promoter, and $11,500 for a half-time assistant, the program’s efforts would have to depend on volunteers, Kopecky said.

A potential $70,000 in state I Love NY funds for advertising outside of the county also would be unlikely because a local match is required, he said.

Committee member John Sagendorf, a former Howe Caverns general manager, said tourism, the county’s second largest industry behind agriculture, brought in $1.2 million in sales tax to the county in 2005, based on $30 million in direct sales revenue.

Kopecky said active tourism programs aimed at luring more visitors would generate at least an additional 5 percent, or $60,000 per year in additional sales tax.

In an effort to counter what he said was “misinformation” about the programs, Kopecky argued “it will really cost the taxpayers only $34,000 [more than this year.]”

He arrived at that estimate by deducting $46,500 (the county’s contribution plus a related $1,500 program) from this year’s $140,500 request, then subtracting the estimated $60,000 in increased tourism sales tax.

“So the choice is do they want to not invest in tourism, and guarantee that they’d lose $60,000?” Kopecky asked.

He also suggested that the county could avoid property tax impacts by drawing the money from what he said was a $7 million surplus the county holds in reserve funds.

Ganci and Stratton see this year’s funding request as a bridge toward a proposed 4 percent occupancy tax on people who stay overnight at lodgings in the county.

In August, county supervisors approved requesting state representatives to initiate the required legislative approval of such a so-called bed tax.

But Cherry, who is not a proponent of an occupancy tax, said it likely would be June before the Legislature might act on it, with bed-tax revenue not likely to start flowing until next September, at the earliest.

“It’s really inconsequential to county finances,” Cherry said.

Although the Board of Supervisors’ resolution in August did indicate the tax would be geared toward tourism programs, Cherry noted “it’s not guaranteed that the Board of Supervisors would decide to give all that revenue to the chamber.

“The bed tax is not a sure thing,” Cherry said. “The intelligent thing to do is wait and see what happens with the bed tax.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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