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Jefferson County plans to spend bed-tax windfall

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It’s a nice problem to have.

Jefferson County officials have finally figured out what to do with all that extra bed-tax revenue they’ve been socking away over the last few years.

Bed tax, or “occupancy tax,” as it is formally known, is a 3 percent tax levied on hotel room rentals in Jefferson County. According to the 1988 county law that created the tax, revenue from the tax can be spent only on tourism promotion.

With a rapid expansion in hotel construction in the county over the last few years, that revenue has nearly doubled in a decade, from $430,000 in 2001 to $852,000 in 2011, with an extra $110,000 a year generated since 2009.

This month, the Board of Legislators Planning and Development Committee will vote on a proposal to spend $100,000 of that money on four initiatives designed to promote tourism in the area.

n $25,000 will go toward hiring a camera crew that will shoot aerial photographs and video of the region’s waterfront attractions with high-definition equipment.

n $40,000 will go toward promoting fishing in the region.

n $10,000 will go toward directing travelers to historic sites in the area.

n $25,000 will go toward creating a wine trail marketing program in the fall aimed at expanding the region’s tourism season into September and October.

In most cases, the money going to these initiatives will be used to leverage other funds, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

The county’s $25,000 contribution to the helicopter HD photo shoot is only a small part of a project that is estimated to be significantly greater in cost. Much of that cost will be bourne by Canadian investors who are working to promote an “Aquatarium” scheduled to open in Brockville, Ontario, next year, according to Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, the county’s authorized tourism promotion agency.

The $40,000 going toward fishing promotion will be leveraged against a $60,000 grant from New York state for a project bearing a total price tag of $100,000. Half the money will be spent on creating internet-ready promotional videos featuring the region’s fishing attractions and half will go toward online marketing of that content, Mr. DeYoung said.

And the $10,000 the county is planning to spend directing travelers to historic sites will be used to leverage $100,000 earmarked by the state for the north country region as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $1 million “Path through History” program.

The boom in bed-tax revenue received renewed attention from legislators late last year after area hoteliers began calling for the county to re-evaluate how that money was being spent or, more precisely, not being spent.

“What you’re looking at is not a shortfall but an excess of funds — that’s a nice problem to have,” Ronald G. Thomson, owner-operator of Captain Thomson’s Resort, the Alex Bay Lodge and Uncle Sam Boat Tours, Alexandria Bay, said in December. “...With a highway department, you can make an argument for having a reserve capital fund, but not with tourism promotion.”

The county retains 2 percent of bed-tax revenue to pay administrative fees; 49 percent goes to the city or town where the lodging establishment is, and the remaining 49 percent stays with the county. Villages receive no bed tax revenue.

As the county’s authorized tourism promotion agency, the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council receives most of the county’s share of the revenue. A much smaller portion goes to the Disabled Persons Action Organization to help promote its concert series.

In 2011, when the county’s share of the revenue was $426,615, the county provided $300,000 to the tourism council and $4,300 to the DPAO. More than $122,000 remained in the account after making those payments.

County officials were uncertain what to do with the additional revenue, which was an unexpected bonus, especially with a national economy in the midst of a recovery.

After discussion of the issue interrupted the otherwise festive and light-hearted final board meeting of the year, Mr. Hagemann reached out to Mr. DeYoung for suggestions on how to put that additional revenue to good use.

Mr. DeYoung responded with a long list of proposals that was whittled down to the four options legislators will consider in the coming weeks.

Reacting to the plan Tuesday, Mr. Thomson said, “It’s all very positive, especially the money being leveraged against state dollars. We have a governor who’s paying attention to tourism, which is refreshing. This is a start in the right direction.”

Because this money is usually apportioned during budget time and paid out after the first of the year, this $100,000 being spent is considered a special expenditure.

County legislators and administrators have been wary of “institutionalizing” the spending of the funds, Mr. Hagemann said.

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