County commissioners demand answers from Cashiers tourism leaderWritten by Quintin Ellison
A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.
Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.
Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.
County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.
While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.
Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.
“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.
Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.
“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”
County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.
Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Room tax hike deliberated
Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.
Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.
“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.
Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.
The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.
County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.
Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.
How we got here
• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.
• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.
• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.
• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.
• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.
Where do we go next?
County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:
• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.
• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.
• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.
• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.