Tourism debate erupts at COG

The battle over which organization should serve as the official Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA) for Warren County was waged on a new front Wednesday night.

Representatives of all three parties involved in the dispute -the Warren County Commissioners, Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry (WCCBI) and Warren County Visitors Bureau – all attended the monthly meeting of the Warren County Intergovernmental Co-op (COG), despite the subject not being on the group’s agenda.

The dispute surrounds the commissioners’ decision to change the designated TPA agency from the Visitors Bureau to WCCBI at their Sept. 25 meeting. The designation carries with it the lion’s share of revenue from the county bed tax, which has totaled between $113,156 and $150,525 each of the last three years.

Commissioners Chairman Stephen Vanco spoke to the group in an effort to rally support for the decision amongst county municipal governments.

“We presented each of the municipalities with a request letter to support the switch of the tourism designation,” he said. “We did this not half-heartedly. In my first month (as commissioner), I went to a Visitor Bureau and a WCCBI meeting to ask if they would merge… They made some proposals and nothing ever resulted from it.”

Vanco noted the commissioners need the support of municipalities in which at least 51 percent of the county’s residents call home to make the designation unquestionable. The commissioners have asked municipalities to pass a resolution in support of the switch by November.

“The municipal support kind of puts to bed any questions,” Commissioner John Bortz said.

“Both agencies have their supporters and I’ve heard from both sides in the week since we made this decision,” Commissioner John Eggleston noted. “We didn’t make it lightly. We did make it unanimously. We think it’s time to move forward. We’ve thought about this for a couple of years.”

Paul Pascuzzi, representing Clarendon Borough at the COG, noted the municipalities haven’t been given much time to deliberate prior to being asked to pass a support resolution.

“The only strange thing about it is the county commissioners have had two, two-and-a-half years to consider and debate this, but the remaining municipal officials have two months to consider,” he said to the commissioners. “I guess you’ve given this careful consideration and we’ll have to take a leap of faith and trust you’ve made the right decision.”

“The commissioners stand shoulder-to-shoulder on this one,” Bortz said. “We’ve really hammered this thing out… We need your support. We need to work together on this one.”

Pascuzzi also questioned whether enough of the county population resided outside of the City of Warren to make other municipalities’ decisions meaningful.

Warren City Manager Nancy Freenock pointed out less than one quarter of the county’s population lives in the city.

Individuals opposed to the change were given the chance to argue against resolutions supporting the commissioners decision. The group also brought along handouts on what the Visitors Bureau does, what its budget looks like and a letter from state Rep. Jerry Stern to state Rep. Kathy Rapp opposing the move.

“We are volunteers. We all serve in some sort of business related to tourism,” Visitors Bureau Board President Karen Sobkowski said. “Our main goal is to reach out 50 miles and out.”

Eggleston pointed out funds that go along with the TPA designation are required to be used for tourism promotion. The commissioners noted a memorandum of understanding on the matter had already been approved between the county and WCCBI.

“Our goal is to change the financial operations,” WCCBI President and CEO Jim Decker said, “to improve efficiencies and create synergies with existing staff. To flip it over from 70 percent administrative cost. We’re not looking to scuttle anything that works. We’re going to build a new model where more taxpayer dollars are going to tourism and not administration. We’re not looking at this in any way, shape or form as a windfall. All funds will be segregated. If we do not reduce administrative costs, I will look at it as a significant failure.”

Marty Hinton, of Deep Woods Vacation Home Rentals, spoke in favor of the Visitors Bureau saying none of the owners of businesses that generate bed tax revenue sit on WCCBI’s board.

“Unless you’re on the chamber board, you’re not promoted,” Hinton added.

“I think every municipality will have to vote their conscience,” COG Facilitator John Zavinski noted.