Several organizations dedicated to tourism will receive a share of the Lewis County lodging tax fund, as the Board of County Commissioners on Monday approved the annual recommendation of the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee.
But at least one notable organization will not benefit from the funds, as two commissioners asked Visit Rainier, a chamber of commerce of sorts for Mount Rainier tourism, to change their approach to asking for the funds and resubmit their request in 2015.
Sixteen organizations asked for a total of $465,158 in funding, with the advisory committee recommending — and commissioners passing by a 2-1 vote on Monday — $243,100 in total funding among the groups. Every group that requested funding received less money than they asked for.
Six organizations will receive no funding at all, including Visit Rainier, the Western Forest Industries Museum, Advocate Foundation, Fire Protection District 8, Washington Bluegrass Association and Cispus Learning Center.
Visit Rainier had the third-highest request of all organizations, asking for $60,000 from the county.
Lodging tax funds are to be used for one specific purpose: promoting and marketing tourism. According to state law, those funds can be used for advertising, publicizing events, creating a promotion agency, and more activities along those general guidelines.
Several people affiliated with Visit Rainier, including three members of the organization’s board of directors, submitted public comments in person and in writing asking the county commissioners to continue supporting the organization through the lodging tax funds.
“The public relations work they do is so good that they shine a national and international spotlight on businesses in the region,” Meilee Anderson of Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, and Visit Rainier board member, said in Monday’s meeting. “I’ve seen the work they do has made the phone registers ring throughout the region and the cash registers sing.”
A letter submitted by Maree Lerchen, member of the lodging tax advisory, or LTAC, committee and member of the Visit Rainier board, stated Destination Packwood, White Pass Scenic Byway and Visit Rainier had a memorandum of understanding between them to work together on several initiatives to promote tourism in east Lewis County. Lerchen’s letter said those projects would not be able to continue without support from Visit Rainier.
Visit Rainier received $45,000 in lodging tax funding as recommended in Dec. 2013, according to county records.
Commissioner Bill Schulte said the county had given nearly $1 million to the three afore-mentioned east Lewis County tourism organizations since 2009. However, he asked Visit Rainier to change the way they form their request in 2015 in explaining why he would vote for the LTAC recommendations.
“We have a target number of 0 and I know that seems harsh, but I ask that Visit Rainier take a look at their policies and approach and resubmit next year,” Schulte said.
Commissioner Lee Grose added that he felt several people involved with the process were in one way or another affiliated with Visit Rainier, alluding to a possible appearance of collusion in the recommendation process that made him uncomfortable.
“The people that spoke this morning have a vested interest in Visit Rainier. It sometimes has the appearance of ‘if you’re not on the board of those, you don’t deserve any money, and if you’re on the boards you deserve money,’” Grose said. “I mentioned this to the LTAC board, that we have to have open minds and open people on that board.”
Grose said the state Legislature has mandated that legislative bodies either award the amounts recommended by the lodging tax advisory committee, or not fund a specific organization’s request at all. Grose and Schulte both indicated after the meeting that they wished they could have awarded Visit Rainier a portion of what they asked for, but couldn’t due to the state’s requirements.
“We were left with little choice here,” Grose said.
“The Legislature took the opportunity away from us. We either fund what’s recommended or we fund nothing,” Schulte added. “We have no leverage or latitude.”
Commissioner Edna Fund disagreed with the recommendation, saying she felt Visit Rainier should still be entitled to funding.
“I had proposed that in the past we take a look at our contracts, look at what we pay for and make sure what we’re paying for is within lodging tax parameters for our county,” Fund said. “I think we could alleviate some of the issues by making it clear as to what our desires are and what they can deliver fo us.”
The lodging tax recommendations passed 2-1, with Grose and Schulte voting for the recommendations as stated and Fund voting against them.