By Marcy Stamper
Representatives of the two groups that advise the Okanogan County commissioners on how to distribute tax collected on lodging to attract more tourists to the county say keeping two separate boards will help them focus on short- and long-term marketing efforts, ensure countywide representation—and decrease burn-out.
Although they acknowledged similarities in their goals and procedures, members of the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC) and Marketing Board said having two groups enables LTAC to focus on short-term efforts to promote the county while the Marketing Board looks at the longer term.
Representatives of the two boards and others in the tourism industry shared their views at a meeting on May 27 called by the commissioners to evaluate whether it would be more efficient to have one board with a single set of policies and procedures.
Members of the Marketing Board concluded that their No. 1 recommendation was to remain separate, said James DeSalvo, a member of the board and the executive director of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA). If the boards combined, it would leave a small number of people determining how a considerable sum of money is spent, said DeSalvo. Together, the two boards make recommendations on spending up to $400,000 annually.
LTAC advises the county about how to spend the 2-percent tax the state levies on hotel and motel stays, which is given to the county and then awarded to nonprofits such as antique car shows and concert organizers, which apply for money to advertise their events. The money also supports visitors’ information centers. Before any of that money is distributed, 40 percent is set aside to pay off the construction bond on the Agri-Plex.
The Marketing Board advises the commissioners about a similar pool of money, the lodging tax collected by the county to promote tourism. The Marketing Board does not currently take applications for the money, which has historically been divided between MVSTA for trail maintenance and the Okanogan County Tourism Council, which advertises the entire county through brochures, maps and a website.
MVSTA is unusual in that it receives money from both 2-percent funds (often called “the first 2 percent,” for the state tax that goes to nonprofits, and “the second 2 percent,” for the county tax that goes to the tourism council and MVSTA).
To comply with a change in state law last year, the Marketing Board proposed that it adopt a similar process to LTAC’s of requiring and scoring applications. Board members also want to require reporting from the recipients.
The county has been working to revise its procedures since a 2012 state audit raised questions about lodging-tax reimbursements of almost $90,000 to 37 nonprofit organizations and visitor centers. According to the audit, the county did not have adequate documentation showing that the nonprofits had met the requirement for matching the 2-percent grants with their own expenditures on advertising.
The auditors’ concerns were a “heads-up” and did not amount to a formal finding, but it will be reviewed in the next audit, said Thomas Shapley, Deputy Director for Communications for the state Auditor’s Office.
Allocation of the lodging tax has been a source of controversy for years, and scrutiny has intensified with a new state law requiring nonprofits to gather detailed information about the number of overnight stays associated with the events they advertise.
Representatives of the tourism industry in the Methow met with the county commissioners in early May to convey their concerns. They say the money is not being invested as intended and is not providing a good return on investment, according to Steve Devin, treasurer of the Mazama Lodging Association and owner of the Mazama Ranch House.
Although 70 percent of the tax collected on lodging in unincorporated parts of the county comes from the Methow Valley—the majority from Sun Mountain Lodge and inns in Mazama—only 30 percent was reinvested in the Methow in 2013, Devin and Geof Childs, sales director at Sun Mountain Lodge, told the commissioners.
Using numbers provided by the state Department of Revenue and the county, Devin subtracted the 40 percent paid on the Agri-Plex, money distributed to nonprofits in the rest of the county, and other funds kept in reserve.
The commissioners’ decision last month to award $93,000 to the county fairgrounds for new bathrooms has added to the frustration of those who question how the money is being spent.
“We went there as contributors of the lion’s share of the funds, asking for responsible management of the money, and they turn around and spend it on the bathrooms, which not only doesn’t comply with the requirements they set up, but is contrary to the intent of how the money is supposed to be spent—to advertise tourism,” said Devin this week.
The process should reflect the benefits and need, not the money spent on the group’s presentation, said County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy at the meeting last week.
The LTAC awards for 2014 were split about 50-50 between Methow Valley nonprofits and those based in the rest of the county (after subtracting about $80,000 for the Agri-Plex), according to figures provided by the county.
The Mazama Lodging Association was awarded $500 from LTAC for 2014. The largest grants—in the thousands—were made to MVSTA, Confluence Gallery and the Omak Stampede.
The commissioners have made no decisions about whether to restructure the two boards, said county commissioner Ray Campbell on Friday (May 30).
The commissioners have also been interviewing applicants for a new committee that will operate the county fair. They plan interviews with candidates for the new Parks and Recreation Board in the next week or two, said Campbell.
A revised request for bids for construction of the bathrooms at the county fairgrounds will be put out next week, said Campbell. Maintenance at the fairgrounds is being handled by a volunteer until the commissioners reopen the search for a facilities manager. The two fairgrounds employees were recently dismissed.