A group asked Loudon County Commission for more tourism funding during Monday’s public hearing on the proposed 2020-21 fiscal year budget.
Several residents spoke in support of the Loudon County Visitors Bureau, which could see a reduction in funding from the county.
For a few years the county’s contribution has been 29 percent hotel/motel tax with a cap of $145,000. The county budget committee initially considered slashing funding to $100,000 this year but later settled on a flat $120,000. LCVB’s initial request was $150,000.
“We based it on different percentages of the hotel/motel tax generated,” Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, county mayor, said. “There’s a few years ago that the visitors bureau came forward and this commission, the budget committee said, ‘If you want more revenue bring more folks in,’ and so that’s what they worked for and a year later we turned around and put a cap on it. I didn’t think that was very fair either. I think this is a revenue stream that it’s impossible to really see. I think it’s there and I think it’s valuable, but it’s not very easy to put a finger on it the specifics when it comes down to it.”
Rachel Harrell, LCVB executive director, said over the past decade county collections from the hotel/motel tax have increased 42 percent, but the proposed funding is less than in 2008.
“Twelve of that 42 percent has been in the past three years and due to the marketing efforts of the LCBV that were focused, strategic and data-driven,” Harrell said.
Tourism serves as the second-largest industry after agriculture in Tennessee, she said.
“More visitors to Loudon County equal more hotel stays, which drives dining and shopping, which drives sales tax dollars,” she said. “Hotels have a vested interest in the LCVB doing well because visitors to their businesses pay the hotel/motel tax.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Labor, 2,000 people were employed by the hospitality industry in the county in 2019. Harrell said that figure showed a 5 percent increase over 2018 and a 36 percent increase over 2008.
“These are some of the most important and most vulnerable jobs as we have just seen with COVID-19,” Harrell said. “Making sure our marketing dollars are in place now is more important than ever. Please allow me to remind you that this is not a short-term need, but a long-time investment.”
Sarah and Jeff Linginfelter came representing the visitors bureau board and as small business owners of Dead Man’s Farm near Philadelphia.
Sarah believes a reduction would be a “great injustice.”
“The visitors bureau is instrumental in marketing our county to visitors in an effort to bring more sales tax dollars, to offset taxes that would otherwise have to be paid by county residents,” she said. “Tourism is a nonpolluting industry that does not cost the county nor the citizens, but provides a return on investment. The visitors bureau is the only agency in Loudon County that promotes the county as a whole and is considered the marketing arm for each of the cities. ... Please consider reinstating the percentage-based funding for the visitors bureau.”
Additional marketing for small businesses makes a big difference, she said.
Dead Man’s Farm has a visitor radius of 350 miles, with many coming from outside the state, Jeff said.
“Being a small tourist attraction we do have a small marketing budget and the reach of the visitors bureau marketing plan is much greater than what we can actually do on our own; it’s been a huge help for us,” Jeff said. “Along with Dead Man’s Farm, we are privileged to have many great opportunities for visitors in our county and we’re thrilled for that. The money that our visitors spend while in Loudon County help us all to save on our taxes.”
Knox County resident Klair Kimmey has served as a member of the visitors bureau off and on for 18 years.
“We have ways now since Rachel came on board to track the work we’re doing and the effect it has on the county, and I just think we’re going in the right direction, and I’d hate to see a funding reduction to stop us in our tracks,” Kimmey said. “Please help us to help the county.”
Anit Patel, with La Quinta Inn & Suites in Loudon and Econo Lodge in Lenoir City, and LCVB employee Ashley Fletcher also supported better funding.
County resident Pat Hunter said Lenoir City should contribute a higher contribution. She considered Lenoir City’s $15,000 a “pittance.” Lenoir City has actually planned $30,000 for the LCVB in the upcoming budget.
“Lenoir City is clearly the benefactor of retail sales, restaurants and hotel/motel occupancy,” she said. “So it’s time for Lenoir City to pay the lion’s share, not the other way around. Any hard work from the visitors bureau benefits Lenoir City, not Loudon County. Please keep the county’s share at $100,000. Loudon city has earmarked $20,000 for the visitors bureau in their proposed 2020 budget.”
Other budget matters
County resident Pandora Vreeland said the commission’s planned spending of reserves is a “plundering-type move,” which includes some for raises.
The current county general fund beginning fund balance is estimated at $4.28 million and could have an unassigned end at about $2.5 million a year from now. County employees are expected to increase to 417 from 415 in 2019-20 and from 372 in 2018-19.
“It’s kind of like being in a bubble and it’s very disconcerting when I look at that because I think, ‘Wow, everybody watches the news. Everybody knows somebody who’s unemployed,’ ... yet I see a big, big budget that runs us into a deficit and will make us tap those reserves so hard the next time the budget committee meets next year, they’re up against the wall, they’re going to have to throw a tax increase out,” Vreeland said. “That’s really terrible planning. That’s disrespectful planning.”
The county is considering a 2 percent raise for employees, Bradshaw said.
Hunter requested a freeze on new hires, and asked the county to not dip into the fund balance for raises. She did ask salary supplements be given to department heads in purchasing and maintenance due to additional duties on the jail expansion and Loudon County Courthouse restoration.
She also requested the county split its $3,000 contribution with Loudon for mowing Riverside Cemetery, reduce Greenback Volunteer Fire Department’s contribution back to $35,000 from $45,000, create a nonprofit policy and rotate yearly beneficiaries except fire and rescue and remove Philadelphia Volunteer Fire Department’s request until it meets the state requirement of submitting an annual audit to the county.
County resident Richard Anklin asked for the county to avoid spending nonrecurring money on recurring expenses.
Michele Lewis, Loudon County Education Foundation executive director, requested the county restore the $2,500 contribution level it had the past two years for Run LoCo, a December marathon that benefits LCEF.
“For the first year our expense to the Loudon County officers for safety and security was $3,400, and in 2019 our expense was $2,805,” she said. “So we’ve received $5,000 from the county, but we’ve paid about $6,200 back in.”
Lewis said the visitors bureau provided “quite a bit” of marketing for the marathon that has the possibility of being a “signature event” for the county.
The budget committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the county office building before making a final recommendation for vote at the regular meeting at 5 p.m. Monday at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex.