Town, county split on bed tax
Bodies disagree about who should control an estimated $2.1 million annually.
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
December 8, 2010
Town councilors and county commissioners are at odds about whether they should appoint three members on a new travel and tourism board from the lodging industry.
The Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners met for the first time Monday to develop a new board to oversee an estimated $2.1 million to be generated annually from a lodging tax. During their first meeting, councilors and commissioners agreed the new board should have seven members. But elected officials could not agree on the makeup of that board.
The town wants three of those members to come from the lodging community, one from a winter ski resort and one from an arts or cultural entity, an idea fronted by Mayor Mark Barron.
“The lodging industry is collecting the money,” Barron said. “They are on the front line. They are the first to see the trends. ... If your goal is to hone your marketing, get the people who do marketing for a living.”
Commissioners said they’d prefer to select from the best candidates.
“I’d rather have them get there by merit,” Commissioner Hank Phibbs said.
Voters approved the lodging tax in November. Lodging operators will begin taxing rooms at a rate of 2 percent April 1.
It’s estimated to generate about $3.5 million annually. Sixty percent of revenues will fund tourism promotion, 30 percent will pay for visitor impacts and 10 percent will go to town and county general funds.
The new joint powers board, tentatively called the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Power Board, will oversee that 60 percent.
Town and county officials must first approve a joint powers agreement that outlines how the board will be organized and operate. Yet councilors and commissioners hit an impasse Monday during their first discussion about who should sit on the board.
Barron pushed for his proposal, and other councilors agreed in a “straw poll.” Commissioners could not back it.
Barron said his idea is about assembling a talented marketing team. The lodging community is already doing national and international marketing, he said. Pulling a candidate from one of the area’s three ski resorts would remind the community that marketing will focus on shoulder and winter seasons, he said.
“The public was told that if we pass a lodging tax, we’re going to push the off-season and winter season and special events,” Barron said. “We’re not going to be pushing the summer season. My proposal reflects that.”
His proposal also “stacks the deck” to allow the board positions to be filled with the “best and brightest” candidates, he said.
“I don’t know retailers who are doing ad campaigns in New York City or traveling to trade shows in Boston, New York or England to beef up lodging or to beef up a resort,” he said.
Yet Phibbs said the community expects officials to appoint the best candidates. He’s uncomfortable mandating a certain number of slots come from certain groups, he said.
Commissioner Andy Schwartz said he wants the boards to have options during the appointment process.
“There are many talented people in this community,” he said.
Commissioner Ben Ellis said he, too, wants latitude. During his four years on the commission, Ellis has appointed many board members, a process at the whim of those who apply, he said.
Only commissioner Paul Vogelheim said he would support pulling three board members from the lodging community. The other four should be discretionary, he said.
That wasn’t the only unresolved issue.
While commissioners supported requiring the new board to fund the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, councilors were skeptical. Today the town and county fund the chamber, a private business group, with a collective $350,000 annually.
During the election, lodging tax supporters, including Vogelheim and Ellis, said one reason to support the tax was so it could be used to fund the chamber and free government money for other uses. Now, that campaign rhetoric is being questioned.
“Do we benefit by calling out the chamber?” said Melissa Turley. “I’m not sure.”
Mark Obringer questioned why the town and county would specify one group to fund but leave out numerous others. The chamber is one of many groups that want a piece of the revenues, Obringer said.
Yet commissioners argued that funding the chamber, particularly visitor services, would achieve the goal of the lodging tax.
Moreover, Ellis said, if the new joint board funds the chamber, the town and county could reduce what they contribute from their general funds.
Doing so also would show support for the chamber, which helped spearhead the passage of the new tax, Vogelheim said.
Commissioners also pushed to require the new board to develop a strategic plan showing how it would spend money.
Some on the town resisted that idea.
Barron said he doesn’t want to tie the new board members’ hands.
“I’m not a marketing person,” he said. “Let the best and the brightest do it. Give them guidelines, and get the hell out of the way.”