Lodging tax fund explained; Visitor Center fund debate halted

Progress requires answers.

Uncertainty about the county lodging tax fund the past few weeks has halted debate concerning Moffat County Visitor Center funding.

The Craig Chamber of Commerce, which houses the Visitor Center in its building, has asked for financial support to help fund the center.

Chamber Executive Director Christina Currie has said that if the Visitor Center were run according to its needs, the cost would put the Chamber into a $14,000 deficit.

Currently, the Visitor Center does not have enough staff to keep up with a high volume of phone calls, mailings and walk-ins, Currie said. The extra money would go toward hiring a full-time center employee.

To City Manager Jim Ferree and the Craig City Council, the Moffat County Visitor Center should be a high priority for lodging taxes, which the Moffat County Tourism Association collects and spends, Ferree said.

At the Craig City Council meeting Nov. 27, Ferree presented a document from MCTA's budget showing unreserved funds ranging from $15,000 in 2004 to $80,000 in 2006.

Ferree printed the document from Moffat County's Web site, he said.

If MCTA has money left over every year that it is not spending, then they should put that money toward the Visitor Center, Ferree told the City Council.

At the time, MCTA board members could not account for the numbers, they said. To their knowledge, MCTA has never had thousands of dollars left over, and the agency budgeted its entire fund for 2008.

That is not the case, said county Budget Analyst Tinnea l Gerber.

The county's financials show unreserved dollars because of the way the lodging tax fund is processed, Gerber said.

The county collects lodging taxes quarterly every year, but those dollars come back two months later. That makes it impossible to know how much money will be in the lodging tax fund until the next year because earnings from September to December one year come back in February the next year, Gerber said.

Partly because of that, MCTA has operated on a budget that's always a year behind.

For example, MCTA spent its 2006 revenue in 2007, and held its 2007 revenue for 2008. The money Ferree pointed to as "unreserved" is the first three quarters of the money the MCTA means to spend the next year.

"I really think they're trying to get their feet under them and have a good solid program to bring tourism to the area," Gerber said.

Ferree said he is confused why MCTA would operate that way when the city has the same problems with sales tax revenue but spends one year's earnings the same year.

It comes down to a conservative approach to a limited fund, said Dan Davidson, former MCTA board member and current Museum of Northwest Colorado director.

"It (the lodging tax fund) is not part of any other fund, so if it zeroes out, you pretty much have to stop operations," Davidson said. "The way the funds come in, there isn't any operating cash when you're waiting for the next quarter. It's so they have some cushion."

In recent years, the board has on occasion spent current year dollars, Gerber said.

"That's partly because the revenue has been so high," she said.

The board has pulled away from that again because the fund was getting too low and the reserve was disappearing, Davidson said.

For city officials, however, the fund's mechanisms don't change their primary contention, Ferree said.

"I think the Visitor Center should be a high priority for the MCTA," Ferree said. "I think the Visitor Center is an important part of the tourism equation. There's enough money there (in the lodging tax fund) to get the thing funded."

The city and county probably could afford to make up the difference in the Chamber's budget, Ferree added. However, that's not their responsibility.

"I'm sure the city or county could make up the shortfall," Ferree said. "But the City Council felt that was an important use of the lodging tax. That's one of the main priorities for that money."

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