In 1997 the Carbon County Commission passed an ordinance (No. 257) imposing a tourism, recreation, cultural and convention facilities tax on restaurants and lodging facilities in the county. The purpose of that tax was to use the money generated for tourism development and promotion.
Since that time the money that was brought in has been used for everything from assisting the Helper Arts Festival to financing a weight lifting competition at the BDAC.
In the last couple of years the pressure of requests for that money has risen continually, while the supply of dollars has not grown very much. In addition a court case in Salt Lake County over the awarding of county funds to non-governmental entities in 1999 defined the use of such monies more narrowly. The Utah State Supreme Court stated, in an opinion issued on August 3 of that year stated that contributions to any type of outside agency must "reflect a valid county public purpose." In light of that development, both the restaurant tax committee and the county commission have been much more selective in how they award funds.
The county ordinance in place specifies that the funds can be used for the "purposes of financing tourism, promotion, and the development, operation, and maintenance of tourist, recreation, cultural, and convention facilities as defined by the law."
While all of that in one form or another has been done, tax committee members and the county commission has been concerned about both the accountability of some projects that have received funds as well as if this money is being spent in the way it should be.
"We have had a multitude of people looking for money for many small events, some of which we have been able to approve, some of which we could not fund because of the restrictions," said County Commission Chair Mike Milovich on Thursday afternoon. "We started to look at how we have been administering this fund when the restaurant committee was reformed a few months ago (due to a number of resignations from the board) and it seems upon review that we should be putting a good portion of that money away to support infrastructure for tourism and visitation, maybe as much as 80 percent."
That figure of 80 percent is what is spelled out in the resolution. However this resolution apparently isn't just the idea of the commission. According to Milovich the board has requested that some kind of policy be drawn up that requires some percentage of the money goes into a savings fund for brick and mortar projects.
The resolution as drawn up denotes that the other 20 percent of the money that is generated be used in the traditional manner for tourism promotion and other projects.
Another change under the proposed resolution would bring the committee together once a year to consider projects, rather than the quarterly meetings they have had in the past. According to the resolutions language this would allow them to compare the pool of money available to the projects and allow them to select the best ones for the use of the funds.
The final point of the resolution points out that when the county commission does not agree with the recommendation of the restaurant tax board concerning a project, it should refer the matter back to the board with it's recommendations on changes and to request a second review of the request for funds. The committee would then reevaluate the matter and send it back to the commission within two weeks for further examination and possible approval.
Since the proposed resolution was made public last week a number of organizations and individuals have been wondering how that will affect some of the activities that have been funded in the past and if they will be funded at the same level in the future. Speculation has also been widespread about what kinds of infrastructure projects the county is contemplating saving the money for. Rumors have crisscrossed the county ranging from funding for the Robbers Roost Convention Center (that a committee recommended be built at the fairgrounds well over a year ago) to the possibility of building a recreation center in the community.
"Right now there is nothing specific in mind for the money," states Milovich. "It's just that we think some money needs to be put aside for possible infrastructure projects. However, we know that any buildings or facilities that are built will need on-going funding to keep them running. Any time any new facility is built we always need to consider what it will cost the taxpayer in maintenance, operation and upkeep."
Since many parties have an interest in the money that comes in each year as well as the money already in the account (reportedly over $300,000 at present), this resolution will probably draw a great deal of attention.
"I think what makes the county work are these small projects and events," says Price Mayor Joe Piccolo. "I just think we are not always capitalizing on our unique diversity here. This is a creative place and small events display that."
Piccolo also points out that while the income comes to the county by way of statute, Price itself produces close to 90 percent of the revenue for the fund (due to the number of restaurants and lodging establishments) and has over 60 percent of the population of the county.
"I worry if the money gets spent only on big ticket items it will be like putting all our eggs in one basket," he says. "And if the basket gets dropped it could mean problems."
There is also concern about changing how money has been awarded in the past all at once. It has been suggested that the resolution may be a good one if it is phased in over a year or two, so events and projects that have depended on the funding have time to plan for other money sources.
The resolution will be considered by the commission at 6 p.m. on Wednesday night in the Carbon County Courthouse.