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Wednesday, 05 June 2013 13:03

Novice Jackson tourism board flounders over budget

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The Cashiers Chamber of Commerce leaders claim they have been slighted their fair share of visitor center funding from the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.

 

They also publicly accused the tourism board chairman of an underhanded move to unilaterally reduce their funding outside the purview of the full tourism board.

The tiff is a sign of early growing pains for the newly formed Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, which has not yet found its footing. It is also a sign that the old tug-of-war between Cashiers tourism interests and the rest of Jackson County tourism is still lurking below the surface — despite the county supposedly coming together under a new single banner for its tourism efforts.

Both the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and Jackson Chamber of Commerce have historically gotten a cut of the county’s tourist tax dollars to run their respective visitor centers. Cashiers this year requested more, claiming it wasn’t getting as much as the Jackson Chamber’s visitor center.

The finance committee of the Jackson Tourism authority agreed to increase the allocation to the Cashier’s chamber. Cashiers chamber supporters claim it is only fair they get an amount comparable to the Jackson chamber.

But when the tourism authority Chairman Richard Meads reviewed the draft budget, he wasn’t happy with what he found.

The county had increased the tourism tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 4 cents, and as a result, the tourism authority should have had an extra $150,000 to work with in its tourism marketing budget. 

But the marketing and promotions budget didn’t seem that much bigger.

“Then, I started peeling the onion back,” Meads said.

He noticed a $20,000 increase destined for the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce visitor center, which would have been a 30 percent increase. 

“The revenues should go to advertising and promotion not salaries at visitor centers,” Meads said. “It’s not justified.”

Meads decided to make some changes to the budget on his own. It had already been turned in to the county, but Meads called the county’s finance director and directing her to make the edits over the phone, including cutting out the increases for the Cashiers’ chamber.

Meads actually works in the Cashiers tourism industry as the general manager of High Hamption Inn.

Cashiers Chamber Director Stephanie Edwards took issue with Meads making changes to the budget unbeknownst to the rest of the tourism board — and after the finance committee that had initially approved the increase. 

That wasn’t right, according to Tourism Board Member Debby Hattler.

 “My problem is not with the increases,” Hattler said, taking Meads’ to task at a tourism board meeting last week. “My problem is how you handled this.”

However, Meads defended himself saying three finance committee meetings were held since he changed the budget. Meads claims the other finance committee members besides Hattler supported his revisions. He also said that the tourism board as a whole supports his changes.

But that still calls into question whether it was proper procedure for Meads to make the changes in the first place without going through the board. That said, there’s an apparent lack of protocols all around, since the budget initially approved by the finance committee didn’t get formally vetted by the full tourism board.

Had the budget drafted by the finance committee gone to the full tourism board for review in the first place, the debate could have been hashed out on the front end.

That’s what County Manager Chuck Wooten wants to see. The tourism board never officially voted on its own budget, he said.

Now, it is unclear whether the budget given to the county is truly representative of what the majority of tourism board members want. It is not best practice, Wooten said.

“They ought to get their own proposed budget, have a public hearing and then adopt a final budget,” Wooten said.

Yet, Meads said what he did was the moral thing, and that the Cashiers visitor center was still seeing a 14 percent funding increase.

“We are all new at this,” Meads said. “I just know that what I saw didn’t look right and I tried to correct it.”

But what Meads did didn’t look so right to Cashiers Chamber Director Stephanie Edwards, who is also a non-voting member of the authority.

Edwards spoke at a public hearing on the county budget Monday and made her case to commissioners to change the budget back. Although the commissioners are not required to approve the tourism authority’s budget, she made her case to them as opinion leaders in the community.

 “The Cashiers area has much to contribute … and deserves its fair share of resources to do the job effectively,” Edwards told commissioners.

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