Will rooms-tax funds be used to tout Brattleboro?

Selectboard seeks more details as Chamber, DBA propose $42,000 for program to attract visitors to town

BRATTLEBORO — Two local business and economic development groups have joined to ask the Selectboard to add an item to the fiscal year 2020 budget: $42,000 to market the town to visitors.

Members of the boards of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance seek the funding from the 1-percent local-option tax that is added to Vermont's 9-percent rooms-and-meals tax and a 10-percent tax on alcohol served in restaurants.

The statewide tax - not to be confused with the local-option sales tax (LOST) under discussion - applies to all prepared foods, restaurant meals, and hotel stays.

Some towns throughout the state, including Brattleboro, add a 1 percent “local option” on top of the sales taxes collected by local entities and paid to the state. The balance of the 1 percent is returned to the town after the state retains processing fees.

Representatives of the DBA and the BACC appeared at the Jan. 8 special Selectboard meeting to introduce their idea.

Board members noted that the details were in short supply.

The group presented no budget, no plan, no target audience, no method to track the project's success, and, should it be approved, which of the entities would receive the funding.

Proceeds greater than projected

DBA Design Chair Dick DeGray - whose wife, Missy Galanes, owns the Vermont Shop on Main Street - gave a brief history of Brattleboro's 1-percent local option on the rooms and meals tax.

When it was passed in 2007, DeGray was a Selectboard member. He supported the plan, he said, for the purpose of relieving some of the tax burden on the town's property owners.

In the first quarter the local option rooms and meals tax went into effect, DeGray said, it brought in $67,000.

In FY18, the town collected $421,187 from the local option rooms and meals tax, said Town Manager Peter B. Elwell. This exceeded the FY18 anticipated revenues for this item, and in FY17 the income was also greater than expected.

During the Selectboard's recent discussions about the LOST, board members raised the issue of how to ensure that future boards use the revenue only to offset property taxes, not for special projects.

As Elwell pointed out, there's no mechanism to do so.

Once the money comes in, the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting are empowered to allocate the funds however they see fit.

A change of mind

In the 12 years since DeGray supported the local option rooms and meals tax, he said he has changed his mind about using the revenue solely to ease property owners' tax bills.

Now, he told Selectboard members, he wants to use some of this money “to market our community, and using these funds that are brought in would be a great way to do that.”

DeGray said his goal is to help Brattleboro businesses. “We've never really given anything back to them, and they're the sole reason why we have this fund,” he said.

'Who is this for?'

An audience member asked if the group had a draft budget for how they plan to spend the $42,000.

“Not yet,” said DeGray, who added, “We would start working on that once this is approved.”

Selectboard member Shanta Lee Gander had a number of questions and concerns.

She asked the group to name other potential collaborators, and if the plans included bringing in groups focusing on diversity and inclusion, and on the arts. Gander also asked how local businesses will be partners in this project, and she expressed concern that some business owners may be left out of it.

“Are you doing a SWOT analysis before you spend the money?” Gander asked, referring to the strategic planning practice of assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

She also asked the group's members to identify their target audience.

“Who is this for?” asked Gander, who wanted to know if the plan will include diversity in age, activities, and ethnicity.

Most of her questions were left unanswered by the group.

Vickie Case, the Chamber's board president, said she agrees with Gander's concerns about inclusivity in the group's plan.

But “we don't know that yet,” she said. “It needs to include the people that live here already.”

Cindy Ludlam, DBA board member, said, “there's no strategic plan yet,” nor has the group identified a target market.

“The goal is to get more feet on the street,” said DeGray - specifically, the feet of visitors who might not know about the town's hiking trails, the Harris Hill Ski Jump, the ski hill at Living Memorial Park, and the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center.

Those visitors, said DeGray, will likely eat a meal here and stay overnight at a hotel. When they do, he said, a portion of their spending will go toward the local option rooms and meals tax, which will benefit residents.

“As that grows, the stress on the taxpayers becomes less,” said DeGray.

Not everyone was convinced this was the right approach.

One resident, referring to DeGray's comment about “feet on the street,” noted, “there's already enough very cold, freezing, homeless people [...] and there's enough of their feet on the street.”

This money can be used to fund other things, such as mental health and housing resources, the audience member said, “and not to gentrify the area, not to make it more unaffordable.”

The clock is ticking

Selectboard Vice Chair Brandie Starr offered her support for the proposal, and said it's the board's responsibility to address many needs in town, including protecting its most vulnerable residents and serving its businesses.

“We really need both to be healthy and strong for us to thrive,” she said.

Although Selectboard member David Schoales agreed with Starr's statement about the board's dual responsibility, he had concerns, such as which entity is “getting the check,” making sure a five-year evaluation is written into the proposal, and whether anyone is tracking how successful the marketing plan is and if they are considering other factors in that assessment.

What's more important, said Schoales, is the concerns Gander raised about inclusivity and a target audience.

“The really important considerations aren't here” in the proposal, he said, and he wants that information before the Selectboard makes its decision.

Gander agreed. She wants more information, too, but said that even with it, she won't promise to approve this idea.

The clock is ticking.

Town Manager Peter B. Elwell noted “there's not that much time” before the Selectboard has to approve the warning for Representative Town Meeting.

And, if this group wants the funding for its marketing idea to arrive in the next year, the FY20 budget needs to include a line item for that expenditure.

The next scheduled Selectboard meeting is Jan. 22, and there's a special meeting on Jan. 29. The latter, said Elwell, is typically very short in duration - the board just approves the warning.

But, he noted, board members could take more time on Jan. 29 to discuss it.

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