PRINCETON — Is Mercer County’s hotel/motel tax best spent bringing more heads from outside the region to sleep in local beds or serving facilities that enrich quality of life for visitors and residents alike?
Should the funds be doled out solely to benefit tourism opportunities or be spread out in such a manner so that local libraries and the Mercer County Airport are included, so long as they also benefit economic development, arts and historical initiatives?
These are the questions the Mercer County Commission, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and even the community at large have pondered, researched and debated at length for weeks, months and even years.
The debate waged on Tuesday in a marathon session at the Mercer County Courthouse, and it didn’t appear likely to end there. During the session, Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler, who also serves as the Commission’s attorney and legal counsel, worked double duty, as he rotated between the meeting and grand jury proceedings in circuit courtrooms, but commissioners read a legal opinion he prepared ahead of time in regards to the West Virginia State Code outlining precisely how the hotel/motel tax may be spent in accordance with the law.
In short, Sitler’s review of the law found that the Mercer County Commission’s spending of the hotel/motel tax, which was challenged in June by the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Charleston attorney Brian Helmick is in tune with the West Virginia state code that created the funding source for tourism in the Mountain State.
After providing the CVB its mandated 50 percent, Sitler pointed out that the Commission may deposit its 50 percent into its General Fund to support:
• The construction, operation or maintenance of public parks, tourism information center, and recreation facilities, including land acquisition;
• The promotion of the arts, including music;
• And historic sites.
Sitler pointed out, “Public libraries are recreation facilities which promote the arts.”
He also noted that both Princeton Public and Craft Memorial libraries offer music collections, which fit into the state code in that category. The Craft Memorial Library houses the Eastern Regional Coal Archive, which he said stands as a historic site, while Princeton Public Library offers the West Virginia Room, a place where visitors and genealogical researchers may learn more about their own families and those from West Virginia’s past as well as picking up books by native authors.
Therefore, Sitler believed both libraries could stand strong as historic sites. His letter didn’t touch on Princeton Public Library’s preservation as the city’s former Post Office, but that could pose a possibility.
He also reported that libraries are required to be funded in state code with General Fund expenditures available to counties.
Moving on to the airport, Sitler reported, “While the Mercer County Airport is currently without regular commercial air service, its traffic certainly includes ‘passenger air service.’ Although the planes are privately owned and/or chartered, passengers travel on them for the Coal Show and other local events, which promote commerce and tourism.”
He concluded by writing, “Any prospective litigation by the CVB would therefore seem likely to fail.”
According to state code and Mercer County practice, 50 percent of all Mercer’s hotel/motel tax each fiscal year goes to benefit the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which seeks to promote the county outside the area and draw visitors into the region. The County Commission then keeps 50 percent of the funding, and Commissioners believed they have been spending the remaining funds appropriately on events and facilities that drew people to the area.
In June, however, Charleston attorney Brian Helmick, of Spilman, Thomas & Battle, addressed the County Commission, challenging their 2015-16 contributions to the Princeton Public and Craft Memorial libraries, which got $20,000 each, and the $125,000 allocation to the Mercer County Airport, since the airport no longer offers any commercial air service. That service’s loss was traced to the oversight of a previous Mercer County Commission, which failed to submit an application to hold onto the Essential Air Service funding subsidy that would have kept a commercial airline in place at the airport in 2007.
When the federal funding lapsed, so did Colgan Air, which flew daily flights from Bluefield to Dulles International Airport and reportedly served 4,009 commercial clients in one of its final years in operation.
The CVB and its supporters’ arguments in June were that neither the airport nor the local libraries serve to bring outsiders into the community in sufficient numbers to meet their interpretation of the state code that created the hotel/motel tax; therefore, they, along with Helmick, argued, the funding of those entities by the County Commission was incorrect and bordered on illegal.
MCCVB Executive Director Jamie Null and CVB board members told Commissioners at that time that if they wanted to continue funding the libraries and the airport they simply needed to take the money from another funding source and leave what they considered their money in place.
At the close of that session, it appeared all parties agreed to the creation of an application for hotel/motel tax funding that would, in the future, be reviewed by an advisery panel that Commissioners allegedly thought would consist of a mixture of elected officials and industry insiders. When CVB representatives provided a potential list of that committee members, however, the commission was reportedly not pleased with the possible makeup of the panel.
Archer led much of the discussion Tuesday, speaking from a prepared statement, telling the standing-room-only crowd in the County Commission Courtroom, “I have personally learned a great deal from my first nine months in public office. One of the most important things I have learned is that I don’t speak for me personally. I speak for the people who elected me and trusted me to serve them in this office.”
He reminded the audience that the voters struck down a proposed Vital Services Levy in 2016 that would have largely funded economic development efforts throughout the county, by a margin or more than 2-1 at the polls.
“During my campaign, I was fortunate to be successful in my race against a very qualified opponent, but I was also watching the results of the special levy. What I heard from the people was simple,” Archer said. “They want local government to live within its means.”
Archer said he knew providing facts to challenge the CVB beliefs that the Commission was spending the hotel/motel tax funds correctly could be akin to “throwing gasoline on a fire,” but he asked for listeners’ indulgence as he shared his rationale as to why the issue was much more complex than the black-and-white letters of the law.
First of all, he referred to the libraries, where he said Princeton Public Library preserves a historic structure at the gateway to the Princeton Renaissance Project, which is renewing a sense of pride and vibrance in a downtown that depends upon it. In Bluefield, Archer said Craft Memorial Library is pivotal in the Bluefield historic district, where he has personally met with researchers from across the country, as well as Europe, seeing answers to why Bluefield has been so pivotal in the lives of a diverse amalgamation of races, cultures, nationalities and faiths.
“I think that both libraries exceed the historical and cultural standards outlined in the code section that governs uses for public monies outlined in the hotel/motel tax,” he said.
Shifting focus to the airport issue, Archer reviewed the important historical impact Princeton and Bluefield municipal airports played in local life, until aviation needs outgrew the airports available there and necessitated the need for the Mercer County Airport, which had commercial air service in 1985, when the hotel/motel tax was established.
Between 1985, when federal and hotel/motel tax funding were available to support the airport and 2007, when Colgan Air ended commercial service in Mercer, the airport recorded a substantial amount of federal debt to the Federal Aviation Administration in maintenance and improvements. According to Archer, that debt now totals $21 million, and if the county simply stopped funding upkeep at the airport, Mercer County would ultimately default on the loan and become responsible for the full amount, without the financial support the airport can fund itself through fuel sales and hangar rent it currently generates.
As current Mercer County Airport Manager Clinton Ransom stated Tuesday, if the funding became available and a commercial airline wanted to begin flying in and out of Mercer County Airport, he could have the facility ready in short order. He said if funding to the airport stopped, the runway were allowed to crumble and the hangars deteriorated, Mercer County would never have a chance to regain commercial, passenger air service, with hopes to one day, bring the kinds of passengers in and out of Mercer County that even the CVB would like to see traveling here.
The airport still serves businesses with private planes, such as Sam’s Club, Dollar General, Walmart, coal company executives and more, particularly as executives need to fly into the community for a meeting with employees or a business show, such as the Bluefield Coal Show.
“The truth is that businesses use that airport … everything that drives this community uses that airport,” Ransom said.
In the last year, he said the airport sold 100,000 gallons in fuel, which helps fund the state’s fuel taxes and propels other revenue streams throughout the county and state.
The airport also runs a flight charter program, and Ransom said there’s always a hope that Congress, which re-evaluates items such as the Essential Air Service subsidy every four years will reinstate funding and get a similar program going again. But, that particular initiative is not available again to Mercer County, since funding was lost in 2007, unless a commercial airline simply decides it would be profitable to offer service to Mercer County.
However, programs such as future air shows at the airport that would draw visitors to the airport and still satisfy CVB concerns were discussed, and Ransom reported that plans are in the works for an air show in the near future. Drag races, such as those presented at the Tazewell County Airport in Virginia are not permitted, if the airport wishes to keep FAA funding, so he said that possibility was not a probable solution.
Commissioner Greg Puckett voted against Archer’s motion to leave spending on the hotel/motel tax expenditures as is through the current budget cycle and invited CVB leaders back to the drawing board with the next budget cycle, early in the 2018 calendar year.
Commission President Gene Buckner supported the motion.
The motion passed on a 2-1 vote.
In addition to Null, multiple members of the Mercer County CVB Board of Directors, including Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Josh Cline and Princeton-Mercer County Executive Director Robert Farley spoke Tuesday, telling commissioners they respectfully disagreed with their decision.
Cline and Kim McCarthy told Archer it saddened them to hear he felt the Commission was under attack by the CVB and its supporters. On more than one occasion, members stood and said they hoped to “de-escalate” the argument, but the sides didn’t appear to meet in the middle by the end of the session.
Puckett reported he had mentioned previous concerns on this issue during at least three budgeting sessions on the Commission, but Buckner dismissed the concerns, saying he had never heard them.
Buckner asked who Puckett had told.
“You,” Puckett replied, adding that he should be able to go through past meetings’ minutes.
“I don’t remember hearing that,” Buckner answered.
“I told you, and Mike Vinciguerra,” Puckett reaffirmed, referring to the current and former Commission presidents.
— Contact Tammie Toler at firstname.lastname@example.org