County, WCVB open talks on tourism

After a year of being at odds, the two major players involved in the designation of the Warren County Tourism Promotion Agency met Thursday.

At the request of the Warren County Visitors Bureau, the Warren County Commissioners met with a majority of the bureau’s board members to discuss the future and alleviate past concerns.

Board President Coralee Wenzel presented an agenda for the meeting featuring the agency’s 2012-2013 audit and previous financial records, financial reporting to the county, and future planning meetings.

The commissioners said they were happy to open the dialogue with the agency and both sides expressed interest in keeping those lines of communication open.

The commissioners did not ask any questions about the current audit, but did ask whether or not the bureau would provide audits for previous years.

According to the county code, agencies receiving tax dollars – bed tax dollars in the case of the tourism promotion agency (TPA) – must be audited.

Commissioner John Bortz suggested the safest course of action for the Vacation Bureau was “any year you don’t have an audit, get one done. I’m not here to put an anchor on anyone’s neck. I’m here to say we need to do things right.”

The agency did not have audits performed for several years until the 2012-2013 audit, possibly back as far as 2009.

Commissioner Chairman Stephen Vanco said he would ask Solicitor Rene Johnson for an interpretation of the county code’s requirements to determine whether or not audits of past years would be required.

Vanco said his main concern among the WCVB’s finances was a debt of about $50,000. “These (tax) dollars are being used to pay off debts that should never have been incurred,” he said.

At the current payment schedule – $500 per month toward principal in addition to $200 per month against interest – WCVB Treasurer Karen Sobkowski said the debt would be paid off in six and a half years.

“We’ll keep an eye on that,” Bortz said. “If we come back here… one year from now and we’ve incurred another $50,000 worth of debt, the fur’s going to fly again.”

The groups discussed where the WCVB’s financial reporting should be delivered.

“We’re not the only ones that have a say in all this,” Bortz said. He added that he would be uncomfortable with the commissioners acting as a pass-through for those records as they have no higher standing in the issue than leaders of municipal governments.

In September, the commissioners approved a motion that would have taken the TPA designation away from the visitors bureau. However, the commissioners did not have the unilateral power to do that. If the leaders of municipalities representing more than half of the county’s population had agreed, the change would have taken place. That municipal support did not materialize.

One possible avenue of delivering documents and being on hand to answer questions would be for the vacation bureau to get on the agenda for Intergovernmental Council (COG) meetings.

Wenzel said she is already on the agenda for the Feb. 5 COG meeting at the 911 Center in Youngsville.

Commissioner John Eggleston said a minority of municipal governments are represented at the average COG meeting and suggested the WCVB send representatives to the twice-annual meetings of township supervisors.

Vanco advised the visitors bureau to go beyond a presentation of financials and explain its activities and plans to the municipal leaders.

“From this point forward we really have to engage with those municipalities,” Bortz said.

After Vanco reiterated his interest in seeing the visitors bureau merge with the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry as the county’s TPA, Wenzel asked directly if he would push for that merger in the future.

“I think it’s only good for the county that all entities work to the same goal,” he said.

“Is where we are at right now the end of the best idea of how to promote tourism in Warren County?” Bortz said. “I think we can do better.”

“Look at what the surrounding TPAs are doing,” Vanco suggested. “There’s always room to improve the flow of tourists coming through here.”

Bortz said he thought the groups had a “good meeting.”

The board members generally shared a positive outlook.

“I think we’re going to get more out of this than we lost,” John McGraw said. Now that more people, including municipal leaders, are aware of the presence and efforts of the TPA, they can let the agency know what would help them.

“It’s all about what’s best for Warren County,” board member Jim Roth said.