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Wednesday, 03 July 2013 01:19

Cashiers fights for bigger piece of funding pie

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The debate over the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority budget was bumped up another notch last week when dozens of business owners and members of the Cashiers community flooded a budget meeting demanding more money for the Cashiers visitor center.

 

Their game plan was to introduce an amendment to the TDA budget and have an increase in the visitor center’s funding written back into the budget, after it was taken out in a controversial move by authority Chairman Clifford Meads.

To show support for the issue, Ken Fernandez, a TDA board member and president of the Cashiers Area Chamber, called upon chamber members to rally at the meeting. He sees visitor center funding as playing a key role in promoting tourism in the area.

“There’s still a vital role for a visitor center with eye-to-eye, one-on-one contact,” Fernandez said. “But we’d like more money to have more tools to do our job better.”

But when the full house of Cashiers visitor center supporters turned out for the meeting, expecting to cheer on the center’s budget increase, they were disappointed to find out that the amendment couldn’t be introduced.

A budgeting technicality prevented any changes from being made until the TDA held a valid public hearing on the budget. Their last pubic hearing, which is a prerequisite to passing a budget, was null and void because a quorum of board members wasn’t present.

Instead, an interim budget had to be passed and another public hearing scheduled in mid-July. Only after that hearing can an amendment be introduced.

That’s when the attendees’ ire was turned on Meads, who was blamed for acting unilaterally and depriving the visitor center of the full funding increase. Instead of an increase of $22,000 first included in the draft budget, the Cashiers Visitor Center is slated for an additional $8,000 in the new fiscal year. 

Many Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce members still want to see the full amount funded. Meads was accused of not following the proper protocol for budget changes when he pushed for a lesser increase. And more than one Cashiers resident at the meeting tried to take him to task for it.

“Who changed the line item?” asked Rand Soellner, an architect in Cashiers, standing up and speaking in front of the crowd.

“I did,” responded Meads.

“That is not a valid change,” Soellner said. “You’re using our tax dollars. You ought to have a vote on it. This needs to be questioned democratically.”

He was followed by Bob Starkey, a CPA in Cashiers.

“We’ve never heard of an iterative process where a chairman of a board changes something without a consensus of the board or committee,” Starkey said.

Even Stephanie Edwards, executive director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce, showed her frustration over not having the full budget increase she wanted for the visitor center and being left with an interim budget instead.

“I need the budget for our fiscal year that starts on Monday,” Edwards said. “And I don’t have that.”

But County Commissioner Vickie Green, who is a non-voting member on TDA, said the concerns were overblown and the budget delay will actually give the authority the time it needs to sort out all its budget issues. Counties across North Carolina are adopting interim budgets as the state is slow in getting out its budget.

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Green said. “This needs to be a forward-looking group. Blame making should not be part of the discussion now.”

But the comments of the Cashiers contingent were not limited to the budget process. The group had its pitchforks sharpened and torches blazing. Attendee after attendee criticized the TDA board on everything from the board’s ongoing branding campaign to the location of its meetings to its marketing strategies for the Cashiers area. One person in the crowd even characterized the TDA as “government at its worst.”

Several times, TDA board members tried to call the meeting to a close, but the comments continued. 

Meads even defended his move to do away with the increases and took responsibility for making the changes. He characterized the extra $22,000 for the visitor center in Cashiers as unwarranted and potentially wasteful.

And in his defense, Meads claims his changes were supported by the finance committee and the majority of the full board. However, a confusing and unorthodox budgeting process by the new board has muddied the waters as to who supported what.

“It wasn’t just a striking of the pen and giving (the budget) to the board,” Meads said.

The issue began to gain momentum weeks ago, as the TDA’s Finance Committee was hashing out the budget for the new fiscal year. An increase of $22,000 for the Cashiers Visitor Center was written into the first draft of the budget.

That draft was agreed upon by the four-person finance committee, according to committee Chairwoman Debbie Hattler, who is also a Cashiers-based business owner.

However, when Meads, who is not on the finance committee, took a closer look at the budget they wrote up, he found the $22,000 increase to the visitor center in Cashiers and didn’t like it. He then had $14,000 of the increases to the visitor center written out of the budget — the move that angered the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce.

But he contends that the changes were not the unilateral power grab he is being accused of. In fact, the finance committee met three times after Meads erased $14,000 of the visitor center funding increases. Meads said once the increases were brought to the center of discussion, committee members backed his move.

He also claims to have the support of the majority of the full board, even though timing problems excluded them from voting on the budget before it was published for a public hearing.

Meads said he is now being used as a scapegoat by the chamber because the funding increases to their visitor center aren’t that popular of an idea across the entire county. Meads, who lives and works in Cashiers in the hospitability business, was also upset that the chamber’s call for action at the last meeting felt somewhat like a personal attack on him.

“I made the changes — I’ll take responsibility for that,” Meads said. “But they’re blaming me even though we took it back to the finance committee for discussion and clarification.”

However, Hattler argued that the finance committee didn’t exactly achieve clarification but rather was unable to reach an accord. In the meantime, the June 30 budget deadline was approaching. So it was the modified draft, which only gave the visitor center $8,000 in increases, that was sent to the county to be included in the round of budget hearings for the public.

A public hearing is a requirement before any public budget is approved. But Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce members were not pleased that the budget being pushed forward did not include the increases they believe their visitor center deserves.

Many argue that because of the large amount of overnight room tax generated in the Cashiers area, it deserves to have funding at least equal to the visitor center in Sylva.

“Given the significant volume of occupancy taxes generated in the Cashiers Area, the local Chamber’s request for a funding increase — to the level historically provided for the visitor center in the northern part of the county — is simply a long-overdue,” said Edwards.

Before the TDA was formed, the county had two separate tourism promotion boards. One represented the county as a whole and the other represented the Cashiers area. Money collected from a tax on overnight hotel, inn and B&B stays was split between the two entities.

Historically, the Cashiers area has collected around 40 percent of the room tax revenue. When the two boards merged the overnight tax was increased from 3 to 4 cents, as part of the process. The money was expected to generate an additional $150,000 to promote tourism in the county.

However, many Cashiers business leaders and authority board members representing the area claim it would only be fair to use some of that new revenue for the their visitor center to bring it on par with the one in Sylva.

At the center of their discontent is the fact that the Cashiers Visitor Center is slated to receive more than $68,000 from the TDA in the upcoming fiscal year, compared with the $81,000 or so going to the Jackson County Visitor Center located in Sylva that serves the county as a whole. Last year, the Cashiers Visitor Center received $60,000.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers and works with Meads at the High Hampton Inn, voiced his reservations about such a large increase for the Cashiers Visitor Center.

He said he has requested a detailed breakdown of what the additional $14,000 or so would be used for and has yet to receive a response. 

“This money should be going to put heads in beds, period, and not for subsidizing any organizations,” Jones said.

 

Growing pains

Jackson County’s newly formed Tourism Development Authority is experiencing growing pains as it navigates the complexities of following protocol as it drafts its first budget.

The first stumbling block came several weeks ago as the finance committee completed its draft of the authorities budget. For most public boards, their budgets follow a progression from finance committee, to the full board for approval, then on to the public hearing before going back to the full board again for possible changes and a final adoptive vote.

“That’s the way it should have worked and it didn’t,” said Debbie Hattler, chairwoman of the TDA’s Finance Committee. Hattler took over for the former finance chairman, Russ Seagle, who resigned amid the budget controversy.

Instead of the proper process the TDA’s draft budget went straight from a divided finance committee — which never quite agreed on the final product — to public comment, bypassing the full board. That created the uproar when Cashiers Chamber members realized the $22,000 in increases they wanted for their visitor center had been cut to about $8,000 by Meads.

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