By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
As Macon County officials work to create a new tourism development association, the financial picture for the Franklin and Highland chambers of commerce could change drastically.
Right now, the Highland’s chamber receives an estimated $280,000 from the county’s lodging tax and the Franklin chamber gets $180,000. However, a countywide audit two years ago raised questions about how the county was disbursing the room tax money, Macon County Manager Sam Greenwood said in a telephone interview.
“Money from the county’s lodging tax was not being distributed properly,” he explained.
All visitors who stay at a county hotel or vacation rental are required to pay a 3 percent occupancy tax. The tax, established in 1986 by state legislation, is used to promote tourism and travel within the county.
Macon County is one of the few counties that has not established a county-wide tourism development association to control the room tax money.
Instead, county commissioners currently act as the tourism association by giving the room tax money to each chamber of commerce based on where the room tax is collected.
This method, according to Greenwood, does not meet state regulations because the chambers of commerce are private organizations.
When county officials turn over the money to the chambers, those groups decide how to spend it to promote tourism and travel. Once the new committee is formed, it will oversee the distribution of the lodging tax, said Greenwood.
The old way
As it is now, the Highland’s chamber receives the room tax money from lodging businesses in three townships: Highlands, Flats and Sugar Fort. The Franklin chamber receives funding from the rest of the county lodging businesses.
“Each chamber operates differently,” Green-wood said.
Franklin’s Chamber of Commerce uses the money as grants for various organizations to promote special events. The money is also used for advertising and marketing of the area.
In Highlands, the money helps the chamber operate a visitor center and promote the town through an assortment of advertising.
Another reason for changing how the tax is allocated is because its collection has been irregular.
“A number of business were not participating and collection was spotty,” Greenwood said.
The new way
“It’s the commissioners’ responsibility to ensure funds are spent within legal guidelines,” Greenwood said.
Macon County Attorney Lesley Moxley is in the process of evaluating the permitted uses of the tax money. She would not comment on the project’s specifics.
One possible solution is to allocate the tax money to each chamber to run a visitor center, Greenwood said. The rest of the funding could be allocated to the tourism committee, he added.
“That would be an easy solution to how funds are spent,” Greenwood said.
Plans call for the commissioners to adopt a new distribution system in December, Greenwood said.
But as county officials work out the committee’s specifics, both chambers are waiting to become involved in the process.
“We don’t know what’s happening in regard to the eventual plan,” Bob Kielyka, executive director of Highland’s Chamber of Commerce said. “We want to be part of the process.”
Linda Harbuck, executive director of Franklin’s Chamber of Commerce, had the same response.
“We have not been informed on how it’s going to work,” Harbuck said. “We have recommended and asked to be included in the process of developing a committee.”
Both executive directors have gone on record stating their support of forming a tourism committee.
“The Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center looks forward to participating with the county in promoting tourism and economic prosperity,” Kielyka, wrote in a letter to Macon County commissioners on June 13.
Harbuck agreed. “We’ve expressed our willingness to join a county-wide program,” she said.
Franklin members have even proposed suggestions to county officials such as allowing a representative from the Franklin chamber be involved in the process.
Once the new committee is in place, each chamber will have six months to transition to the different type of system.