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Taxes on burgers and beds add up; How should the county invest revenue?

Sun Advocate reporter

Travelers who stay in Carbon County motels and people who dine in its restaurants pay a little extra when they settle the tab. Motel guests pay a transient room tax, diners fork over an extra 1 percent for the restaurant tax.

The small change collected at each transaction adds up. For the year ahead, the Carbon County Tax Advisory Board anticipates the county will have $275,000 to spend on travel and tourism enhancement. The question is, where will the money do the most good?

Should most of it go for brick-and-mortar improvements, or should the lion's share go to advertising and marketing efforts to draw people into the county?

The advisory board's answer, formally submitted to the county commission last week, shows a 50-50 split between the two options in its top four priorities. But commissioner Mike Milovich questioned that, making it clear that he favors weighting the balance in favor of tangible stuff.

Milovich, who was on the commission when the county originated the restaurant tax about a decade ago, recalled the the original advisory board marching orders were to invest 80 percent of the tax money in brick-and-mortar, with the remaining money going for advertising. He had stated at previous discussions that over the years the spending priorities had flipped.

The trouble with advertising, or services such as the Castle Country Regional Information Center, is that the impact on tourism is difficult to assess. He'd like to see cost-benefit figures on the revenue generated from advertising and tourist services. For example, how much did county tourism benefit from money spent on a National Geographic ad?

In an interview later, Castle Country Tourism Director Kathy Hanna-Smith explained that the ad in question cost $34,000, with the state's Travel Council picking half and the balance shared equally among the county and three other parties. So the tab was about $4,200 for Carbon County.

National Geographic's website reports it has about 8.5 million subscribers worldwide. This number does not include waiting room readers in doctors' and dentists' offices. How many saw the ad or responded by coming to Utah is not known.

Hanna-Smith said that one big problem in assessing the cost-benefit of advertising is in getting an accurate count of visitors and how much money they spend here. The Prehistoric Museum, for example, maintains a visitor log but nobody counts cars or passengers cruising through Ninemile Canyon.

In neither example above does anyone know if visitors, counted or uncounted, spend any money on food or lodging as a result of their visit.

At the commission meeting, advisory board chairman Nick Tatton said that the board does require detailed information on ad campaigns from funding applicants. Those granted money have to report back to show they spent the money as intended and document results.

Commissioner John Jones backed up Tatton's remarks, noting the board has disqualified some promotions from future allocations because they failed to report back.

The commission approved commissioner Jae Potter's motion to approve the priority list, with a recommendation that more emphasis be put on infrastructure.

Also coming under the microscope was a requested increase in funding for the Castle Country Regional Information Center, CCRIC, aka the "crick." Headquartered in the Prehistoric Museum entry, it is staffed by people who can answer questions for tourists about places to visit, find food, or even find a laundromat in the Carbon-Emery area.

Requested funding for 2011 was $22,239 for the county's share of the operating budget of $52,000. Contributions from the BLM, Emery County, Price City, Forest Service, Castle Dale and Green River were also slated to go up by the same percentage.

Potter again moved for approval, contingent on the other entities matching the county's increase in funding. The motion passed.

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