Tuesday, March 19, 2013
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City MAY claim taxes that fund county tourism bureau

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[March 19, 2013]  Figuring out its future was the aim of the special meeting of the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County on Monday evening. Chairman Paul Gleason introduced the topic of discussion, the potential loss of hotel-motel revenues.

In 2010, the city looked at the possibility of raising those taxes, and then planned to collect a share, but found that could not be done.

Geoff Ladd, tourism executive director, said it has come to the bureau's attention that the city may now be interested in claiming those taxes, and he said the city has the right to do that.

As to why the city might be doing this now, he did not know. "The indication is that the city is not adequately satisfied that we are representing the city with the business that we conduct," he said.

He had reviewed the bureau's budget and observed: "Well over half of our budget directly or indirectly affects the city of Lincoln." Naming a few places and events, he listed "Lincoln Postville Courthouse, Lincoln Heritage Museum, the Art & Balloon Festival, the National Railsplitting Festival, and so on."

Lincoln Alderman Tom O'Donohue came to the tourism meeting with a letter signed by Lincoln Mayor Keith Snyder requesting the acceptance of O'Donohue as liaison for the city. It was noted that this was the first time in the bureau's 26-year history that a city liaison had been in attendance.

In the city's defense, O'Donohue said the city did not know it had that opportunity. He also later said that he would like to continue to act as an ex officio, in hopes it would help communications that had been lacking on what the bureau is doing. He had already heard some things he had not known about that the bureau did that were of benefit to Lincoln.

The reason the special meeting was called, rather than wait for the monthly meeting on March 26, is that there are a number of deadlines and timely measures that would need to be taken in the event of the bureau's discontinuance.

Particularly of concern, Ladd said that timing is critical in applying for an annual state grant due at the end of March. The grant of $27,000 a year is tied to state certification and requires a full-time director.

There are also full-year commitments, long-range advertising and grants to consider.

Dates associated with various cross-involved governmental entities include the city's fiscal year, beginning May 1; the bureau's fiscal year, coinciding with the state of Illinois on July 1; and the county's fiscal year, beginning Dec 1. Budgets and yearlong grants were primary concerns.

There had been no indication as to when the city might claim the tax, but with the Lincoln fiscal year beginning May 1, there was a concern that might be when the change might begin.

O'Donohue said the potential that the city might claim the tax is only a budgetary matter right now because the fiscal year budget is now being prepared. The issue has not been brought before the council yet, and he was certain the city would not be prepared to act on it by May 1, if the council did decide for it. "We have not even gotten into budget discussions yet," he said.

He felt certain that if the city were to decide to claim that tax, it would go on the appropriations budget for possibly being initiated later in the year, but he felt certain that it would not take place on May 1.

Much later in the meeting, O'Donohue was asked for, and he agreed, that he would try to get a commitment that if the city would decide to claim this tax, it would not begin May 1, but possibly Dec 1, when the county fiscal year begins.

As the status of the bureau is unknown, Ladd said that a number of events, planning and commitments that affect the full year have been put on hold, including the tourism's annual breakfast, several ad campaigns, not hiring for a position that was open and other long-range budget-related matters.

Getting to the heart of the matter as to why the city would be considering this action, O'Donohue said it wasn't so much that the city didn't feel represented, "but that tourism is mostly being funded by city motels and hotels and city businesses, and the city council simply thinks it should have a little more say over that money. There has been a disconnect between what the city council defines tourism as and what the tourism bureau has defined tourism as."

Asked for the city's definition of tourism, O'Donohue responded: "Money! Money being brought in from outside sources, from people coming into this town and looking at our attractions and spending money."

He said there would be no argument that advertising and marketing has been done by the bureau, but that "in our opinion" there has been more in historic preservation instead of tourism.

He later explained that he agreed that preservation is part of tourism, but that money needs to be generated from it for it to be considered tourism.

O'Donohue brought forward as an example, not being able to see a direct accounting of "heads and beds" related to the people visiting the covered wagon or Postville Courthouse sites and the actual generation of tourism.

A bureau director spoke up: "Every project we do, we always ask, 'Heads and beds?' That is our consideration whenever we take on any project."

Ladd said: "We are not in the historic preservation business. If you are referring to The Mill, that is operated by a separate not–for-profit foundation."

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In reviewing the city's current stance, O'Donohue admitted: "I am one of the city council members interested in pulling tourism in-house, but I am not the only city council member.

"We certainly will take responsibility for not expressing concerns," he added and said that he would like to work toward better communications on what the city desires toward tourism, committing that he would continue to attend tourism meetings.

O'Donohue said he is a strong proponent of tourism. And in response to a question by a bureau director, he said: "Do I think that we might be able to work things out and the bureau continue to exist the way it is? Yeah, I do. I wouldn't have come here tonight if I didn't.

"I believe that tourism is a keystone for Lincoln. Now, I may not agree with everyone in this room what equals tourism, but that doesn't mean we can't figure it out."

With historic Route 66 and Looking for Lincoln taking off, and the support of state and federal dollars, everyone agreed there are great things to look forward to in the future for the area.

Ladd also mentioned the value gained through the Sports Commission, with the Lincoln Park District and Atlanta each adding four softball fields.

Barbara Stroud-Borth, who lives in Mount Pulaski, said to O'Donohue: "If you take this over for the city of Lincoln, with the focus only being on the city of Lincoln, the rest of us are kind of left out. I think there's a great loss if this board would cease to exist in the present form for the whole county."

She added that she valued what she has seen the bureau able to do in working together and pointed out that her perspective comes from another place; she didn't grow up here and has lived in other counties.

Andy Anderson said: "I think what's important to remember is that this is city money." He illustrated on behalf of the city: "If I'm the person with $150,000, I want a return on my investment. And if I don't get a return, I want to know why."

O'Donohue said: "The city is here to build a relationship with the bureau. I want to work with you and bring people to the city."

Gleason recommended making the city liaison a voting member of the bureau. A motion to that effect was made and passed unanimously.

Bill Hoagland, Main Street Lincoln executive director, urged board members to demonstrate to the bureau's new friend the value we have in the county and in the city. "I see this as an opportunity, and what you make of the opportunity will dictate what will happen down the road," he said.

Peggy Lee asked that the city look at the strategic plan and the budget and where the city of Lincoln has funds budgeted. She also led a plan for a couple of directors to make a presentation to the council on "what the bureau is and what we do."

April 9 was suggested as a tentative date for the bureau presentation.

The tourism bureau was formed in 1987 to promote tourism in the county. It operates under a board of 15 directors. Directors are approved by the Logan County Board and represent all areas of the county. The board employs an executive director position, currently filled by Geoff Ladd.

Ladd explained that by state statute, the county or city has the right to claim the hotel-motel taxes, but the municipality has first rights to those businesses within its limits.

The county collects 5 percent sales tax from hotels and motels. Of that amount, the bureau receives a 4 percent tax, Main Street Lincoln gets a quarter percent, Looking for Lincoln gets a quarter percent, and the remaining one-half percent goes to historic sites, which is decided once a year at the discretion of the county board during budget hearings.

The tourism bureau received $134,540 from hotel-motel taxes in 2011, up nearly 30 percent since 2006, which is for the most part attributed to tourist visits. Most of those businesses are located in Lincoln. There is one hotel in Atlanta and occasional bed-and-breakfast revenues.

With a budget of $194,000 for 2012-13, approximately 75 percent of the tourism bureau's funding is from tax revenues collected by hotels and motels. The taxes are passed through the Logan County Board to the agency and used to promote tourism in the county.


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