The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors wants more information about how the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau spends the tax money it receives for promoting tourism in the area before deciding whether to reduce the amount provided each year to the nonprofit organization.
A diverse mix of views and opinions on the topic were expressed Tuesday at a public hearing for the board to consider a recommendation from county staff that would cap how much Transient Occupancy Tax is given to the bureau, also known as Visit Tuolumne County, at $500,000 per year.
Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT, also commonly referred to as a “bed tax,” is a percentage of the rent charged for a room at hotels, motels, Airbnbs and other types of short-term lodging establishments.
The county’s TOT rate is currently at 12% after voters approved increasing it from 10% in November 2020.
A quarter of the county’s TOT revenue has gone to the visitors bureau under a long-standing contract between the two entities, with the total annual amount in the current fiscal year coming out to $1.75 million.
County Administrator Tracie Riggs stated in a staff memo released publicly prior to Tuesday’s meeting that the county is also currently struggling to deal with the rising cost of providing essential government services, such as those related to public safety.
Riggs recommended gradually capping the annual amount of TOT revenue that the county gives to the bureau at $500,000 by the 2026-27 fiscal year so that the rest of the money could be used for other priorities, like law enforcement, fire protection and roads.
The topic came up as the contract between the bureau and county was set to expire at the end of the year unless renewed by the board.
At the start of Tuesday’s public hearing, County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk proposed extending the current contract until June 30 and schedule a workshop with the bureau sometime early next year to go over the organization’s budget and goals in greater detail.
“This isn’t a cop out to get out of a meeting,” Kirk said, “because we’ve had a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, obviously this room is packed full of people… But it was apparent for me that for me to make really a truly informed decision, I want to know what the visitors bureau budget is, I want to know what their business plan is, because to me this is more of a business-plan-projection type of decision and I didn’t have access to that or time to review that before today’s meeting.”
The rest of the supervisors agreed with the idea and expressed a similar desire for more information from the bureau before making that decision.
A detailed budget for the current or last fiscal year could not be readily found posted anywhere on the bureau’s website, though a Google search yielded a balance sheet for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years.
According to the document, 84% of the bureau’s total income came from the TOT revenue provided by the county in both of those years. Marketing accounted for about 60% of the organization’s total expenses in both years, while payroll was about 31%.
Other expenses outside of marketing and payroll included automobile allowances, office supplies, partnerships, insurance, as well as conferences and training, the document showed.
The Union Democrat sent a request via email for the bureau’s budgets for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 fiscal years, but had not yet received a response as of Tuesday afternoon.
Lisa Mayo, president and CEO of the visitors bureau since 2012, spoke at Tuesday’s public meeting and welcomed anyone from the public, county supervisors, or county staff “that really want to see what we do (and) how we spend our funding” to give her a call.
“Let’s get together, let’s meet in our office,” she said. “We are an open book, we are happy to share with you anything you want to know.”
Teri Marshall, who works for Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge outside of Groveland and serves on the boards for both the visitors bureau and Tuolumne County Lodging Association, also spoke at the meeting to advocate for the current funding arrangement.
Marshall presented slides showing the correlation between the growth in the county’s TOT revenues and additional investment that the visitors bureau has made in certain areas of the tourism market, such as business meetings and conferences.
“Let’s leave funding where it is so we can continue to grow county revenue and not only help pay for essential services and infrastructure but move on to excellence in destination management,” Marshall said. “Like Yosemite Junction that currently says ‘Meth-heads and squatters are welcome here,’ when it could say, ‘Welcome to Tuolumne County, best of Yosemite, the Gold Country, and the High Sierra.’ “
Data has shown tourism to be the county’s No. 1 industry, generating more than $240 million in taxable revenue last year. That was down from a record high of $274 million in 2019 due to lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the arguments made by county officials recommending the $500,000 is that other counties in the region give far less tax revenue to their respective tourism agencies, with Tuolumne County being more than triple that of the next highest amount.
The Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau received only about $50,000 from TOT revenue in the current fiscal year, with most of its budget coming from nearly $2.3 million collections through a Tourism Business Improvement District.
Such districts, or TBIDs, are self-imposed additional fees of generally 1% to 3% on room rates that go directly to an area’s tourism agencies for marketing and promotion.
Several people who spoke at the meeting in support of potentially capping the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau’s funding cited the need for better public safety services as more tourists also flock to the area.
Tom Hernandez, who identified himself as a Pine Mountain Lake resident who manages multiple Airbnbs, said he’s concerned about a lack of services to adequately support an influx of visitors from four resorts that are under development along the Highway 120 corridor.
“If we don’t have the services to support it, we might as well kiss TOT and the visitors bureau goodbye because if we burn up, you’ve got nothing to come to,” he said. “It’s got to be a tough balance.”
Aaron Rasmussen, of Tuolumne, expressed the sharpest objection to maintaining the current funding arrangement with the visitors bureau, arguing that the agency should be defunded altogether.
Rasmussen called the bureau a “local nonprofit business mafia” and drew a comparison to the scandal that erupted in 2018 surrounding the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority after investigations revealed a lack of oversight that led to a pattern of questionable spending and inability to measure results.
“This is not a government priority, to advertise for businesses,” Rasmussen said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4541.