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Could Tourism Spending Be Key to Berea Elections?

07.17.10 05:29 PM – Andy McDonald
A few weeks ago, there was a budget standoff, with the freshmen Berea City Council members on one side and city staffers and longtime council incumbents on the other.

At issue was whether the city’s tourism budget is growing too fast, and whether too much is being spent in advertising and consulting to promote city events and the local hospitality industry.

On the side of partially curbing advertising spending was Jerry Little, Troy Van Winkle and Ronnie Terrill, Sr. They voted against the proposed 2010-2011 budget, partly because spending increases for tourism were too steep for them. Van Winkle particularly took exception to the fact that some $250,000 would be spent on promoting Berea in the next fiscal year.

Ultimately the city budget was voted in by a tally of 5 to 3, but one council member suggested opposition to the city budget was mere political grandstanding. (Story continues below)

He might have been right. Maybe it was grandstanding. But in this particular year, it might ultimately prove to be damned effective grandstanding. Here’s why:

When the Berea City Council voted to impose a three-percent restaurant tax, the intent was to generate revenue that could go toward tourism – to create resources that would be used to bring travelers to Berea.

What has resulted has made some people uneasy. Some suggest the Berea Tourism Board has now become a defacto government within Berea’s city government. It collects revenue through the restaurant tax, board members make decisions about how that taxpayer revenue is to be spent, and yet, those same board members are appointed - unaccountable to the electorate. That's the argument, anyway.

Others disagree. They believe that nothing has really changed because, ultimately, Berea City Council members will always have to approve the tourism budget. As such, it’s the city that collects restaurant tax revenue and it is council members who make the final call regarding how restaurant tax money is spent.

Still, council and mayoral challengers are probably going to be posing the following question to voters: You pay a three-percent tax every time you buy your kids a happy meal or buy lunch in this town. Has anybody from the city ever asked how you think that money should be spent?

I know. The reality is this isn’t a direct democracy, so the city can’t go around polling citizens every time it needs to make decision. Nonetheless, that question could resonate with voters in a time when people are feeling that government is generally indifferent to their needs.

Moreover, voters may be quietly disapproving of the city’s tourism spending if they believe it is frivolous because A.) The city has other needs that aren’t being adequately met; or, B.) The city is spending taxpayer money not because it should, but because it can.

Regarding the second possibility, I think Troy Van Winkle, Jerry Little and Ronnie Terrill just might be onto something when it comes to tapping into voter frustration.

At one point in an exchange between Van Winkle and Tourism Director Belle Jackson, Van Winkle specifically objected to the increase in advertising spending.

Jackson replied, “This is what we do.” What Belle said was logical. It’s tourism’s job to get people to come to town.

Still, I was surprised that none of the three dissidents – Van Winkle, Little or Terrill - followed up with the logical question: Why is this what you are doing now?

Or, alternatively:

Why, in a time when consumer confidence is hitting all-time lows, do you think spending a quarter of a million dollars for advertising will make people more likely to come to Berea to buy pottery and shuck dolls?

In the recent past when the economy was relatively healthy, Jackson told the city council that visitors were coming to Berea, but they just weren’t buying anything. So why, during the worst economy in decades, does the city think that spending more on advertising and consulting will attract prospective buyers now?

Kentucky tourism is taking a pounding in the current economic climate. So instead of spending the restaurant tax money, why not funnel it into an events center fund until the economic storm passes, as suggested by Jerry Little?

I suspect those are the kinds of questions challengers will be raising this fall.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Belle Jackson has always been right that the uniqueness of Berea makes trying to attract tourists a worthy investment. But in these angry political times, voters may question the sheer scale of the city’s spending on advertising and consulting.

The other troubling aspect of this is that a threshold has been passed. Once a program has been established, government spending tends to grow, not get smaller. Luxuries become necessities. This year it was $250,000. Next year, will it be $300,000 or $350,000?

After all, an advertising firm won't tell the city, "Gee, $250,000 worth of advertising is just too expensive. $100,000 would be just as effective."

Sometimes a well intended policy can make for bad politics.

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