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Tax-supported visitors council to up scrutiny of it own budget

Jul 6, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

The Wind River Visitors Council has established a budgeting subcommittee to provide further scrutiny to the appropriations and marketing strategy proposed by its contractor, McCormick Marketing.

The decision comes as some members of the council have expressed skepticism over current appropriations and the Fremont County Commission has indicated concern that the joint powers board -- the local governments that oversee the council -- are being asked to simply rubber-stamp the budget.

At the June meeting, several members of the visitors council signaled a hesitation to delve deep into the budgeting process using the entire council.

Oversight

The new subcommittee was established after Cathy Cline, who represents Riverton on the board, suggested the current oversight is too shallow and provided analysis to the board which showed for the first half of 2017, the county is expect to see a 4 percent decline in lodging tax revenues, despite the council's spending.

Hudson Mayor Mike Anderson, who also sits on the council, welcomed the increased focus but said it was too late to fully implement subcommittee work for the upcoming budget, which needed final approval by the end of June.

"What we're doing to correct the process is correct, but this may not be the year to do that," he said.

Cline's data also indicates a 9.3 percent decline in travel spending in the county over the last year, compared to the average 3.9 percent decline across the rest of the state.

"We're spending a lot of money, and our numbers are going down," Cline said.

Recession effect

Cline said the decline is similar in neighboring Hot Springs and Natrona counties but noted Fremont has more downward pressure.

Steve Liebzeit, vice president of First Interstate Bank in Fremont County, said he believed Wyoming's economic downturn -- not the marketing strategy -- was more to blame for declining revenues.

"It's not a function of us falling short," he said.

The visitors council is the beneficiary of the 4 percent lodging tax collected in Fremont County and has a $700,075 budget planned for the 2018 fiscal year.

Fifty-seven percent of that money is spent on a marketing program that has branded the county as "Wyoming's Wind River Country."

That marketing strategy includes pushing to increase tourism by "investing in the Wind River Country brand, its unique logo, image and name at every opportunity.

"Consistency and repetition are key to building awareness," marketing director Paula McCormick said in the written marketing plan for the 2018 fiscal year.

McCormick said it is also important to leverage lodging tax funds with outside organizations to increase advertising reach while growing Fremont County as a tourism vacation destination by encouraging travelers to spend more days and more money in the county.

Her company, McCormick Marketing, receives 13 percent of the total budget in agency fees.

A quarter of the visitors council budget is distributed to municipalities to help them organize events and other "tourism assets" throughout the year.

Commission weighs in

When Cy Lee, who represents the county on the visitors council, interviewed to retain his position on the board last month, Fremont County Commission chairman Travis Becker urged him to help address the "growing concern" with the budget.

"(McCormick Marketing) works for you. It's not the other way around," Becker said.

Lee said he's "particularly passionate about the budget," adding that the subcommittee, which he's a part of, should help address "the meat of the issue."

"As opposed to being dictated what to do, we want to look at what led to that (marketing plan)," he said. "If that calls for a review, then that process will be instituted."

As part of the 2018 budget, the visitors council expects to spend $49,500 on web development and marketing, which marketing director Paula McCormick said is necessary in order to rebuild the visitors council website with a new contractor after service with current provider Wyoming Inc. has dwindled.

"The sheer cost of that is concerning," Lee told commissioners. "We did it a year ago, and now we've done it again? Well, we want to do right this time, because we can't afford to do it again next year."

Lee said it's also frustrating that the council has needed to go out-of-state to find a contractor capable of building the new website.

"It's something I'm not particularly fond of," he said.

Revenue split

Commissioners have also suggested that the county government should be receiving 10 percent of gross lodging tax recipients, based on their reading of state statute which says that 90 percent of the tax receipts must be spent on "the promotion of local travel and tourism" and "the amount remaining not to exceed 10 percent of the total amount distributed shall be used for general revenue within the governmental entity imposing the tax."

However, Vicci Colgen, former senior assistant attorney general of Wyoming, issued an opinion in 1993 that said that "a joint powers board must spend not less but may spend more than ninety percent of the amount of lodging tax distributed for the promotion of local travel and tourism."

"A municipality has no authority to require that the joint powers board spend only 90 percent," she said.

The visitors council has asked the county board to submit a formal request for funding, while further utilizing its own representatives -- Lee and Shannon Batenhorst -- to further its agenda on the council.

The commissioners plan to do just that, and have suggested the money could be used to off-set their existing costs.

"We do spend a lot of money at the airport, and that promotes tourism," Becker said.

Lee told commissioners that, in his second term, he'd like to identify what priorities the commissioners have and serve as a liaison between the two boards.

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