The elders among us will remember that the late Sen. Everett Dirksen was said to have quipped, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” His point was that unchecked government spending adds up quickly. On the local level, where elected and appointed officials handle much smaller sums, the principle still applies.
Which is why $10,000 can be significant in the scheme of things in the small-town financial arena. However, the Winthrop Town Council, at its meeting last week, seemingly got hung up on a $10,000 request that made sense and would not leave a big dent in the town’s treasury.
The request came from the Winthrop Rink, which is attempting to buy a new ice-resurfacing machine to replace an aged, unreliable machine. Connor Walsh, the rink’s manager, said the nonprofit board that operates the town-owned rink was asking for $50,000 in lodging tax funds the town collects from visitors, and that the rink would raise the rest of the projected $80,000 expenditure.
The request originally went before the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), an appointed group that does just what it’s moniker implies — it advises the council on how to distribute the funds, which must by law be used for what is broadly described as tourism promotion. The LTAC recommended allocating $40,000 toward purchase of the ice resurfacing machine — not an inconsequential sum, and more than the rink initially asked for.
The LTAC is made up of responsible people who have been given a challenging job, and they weren’t being stingy or indifferent to the rink’s request — $40,000 is $40,000. The reasoning offered by the LTAC was that while it supports the rink, it doesn’t want to be sole provider of funds for such projects, and that others in the community should step up.
Let’s see, it was the community that has donated, so far, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods, in-kind services and volunteer hours to get the rink built and support its continued operation. Before that, for decades local volunteers supported a variety of makeshift rinks before the existing one was built. That looks a lot like “stepping up.”
The rink plans to raise about $30,000 through its participation in the Give Methow Campaign, cash donations and other individual sources who support the rink. So most of that money would be coming from — yup — the community. More stepping up.
The LTAC is advisory; the council has the last word. Council members said they were “comfortable” with the LTAC recommendation, in part because its members include responsible businesspeople who know what they’re doing. That’s wonderful and we are all grateful for their participation, but that doesn’t mean their judgment is ironclad when it comes to operating a skating rink, which is a distinctly different business proposition.
The council was deferential to the LTAC (although Mayor Sally Ranzau, who doesn’t vote except to break ties, strongly hinted that she supported the $10,000 request). Given recent history, one might wonder why. Not that long ago, the town’s Western Design Review Board (WDRB) brought the council a legally defensible recommendation based on existing municipal code, and the council blew them off.
So why the dainty tiptoeing around the LTAC members? Are they fragile people who will be crushed by rejection? Hardly. Will they quit in mass protest, as most of the WDRB did? Not likely.
The lodging tax money is there so the community doesn’t have to come up with all the funds. Lodging taxes are generated by tourism in order to generate more tourism. It’s wonderful in its simplicity. The rink is drawing hundreds of additional visitors each winter. The increased revenue coming to the town — much of which will be in the form of even more lodging tax revenues — will probably cover the $10,000 in a season.
The money is available in the town’s lodging tax account. In fact, there’s more than was expected. Thanks to a recovering tourism economy, the town’s lodging tax receipts have been steadily increasing, beyond projections.
The community has stepped up already, time and again, on the rink’s behalf. It’s time for the town to do the same. Because why in the world would you risk the operational future of a vital municipal asset over $10,000 that the town already has and won’t affect local taxpayers?
That just seems cheap and shortsighted. And it may end up being a failure of responsibility.