published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Polk County leaders seek to cut funds to Chamber

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. — The Polk County Chamber of Commerce may be in danger of losing its funding through the county's lodging tax.

On Thursday, county commissioners voted 6-3 to amend an act that allocates two-thirds of the revenues generated by the county's 3 percent lodging tax to the organization dedicated to promoting Polk tourism and industry.

Commissioners Randy Collins, Sheena Gaddis and James Woody opposed the measure.

"There's better use for this money for this county," Commissioner Greg Brooks said. "We've got libraries in need; we've got parks and recreation in need."

According to conversations Brooks said he has had with business owners, many of them think the Chamber of Commerce is not doing enough for the county and that any successes they have had are from their own efforts.

The amendment request, which will be sent to the state Legislature for approval, eliminates the Polk County Chamber of Commerce from lodging tax revenue streams granted to the organization in 2005.

If approved by the Legislature, the amended private act will allocate one-third of lodging tax revenues to the county's debt service and another third to a "promotion coordinator." The last third would be split between the county's library system and its parks and recreation department.

Taking lodging tax revenues from the Chamber will be a major hardship for the organization, said Laura Rivers, the agency's bookkeeper and a former board member. Last year's lodging revenue for the Chamber amounted to $42,000; the organization's other funding comes from membership fees.

"If you cut out the Chamber of Commerce, you are cutting your throats," Rivers told commissioners, citing the organization's role in tourism promotion and economic development.

Of special concern is the Chamber of Commerce's maintenance of Tennessee's Three-Star Program, said Rivers, which rewards counties for excellence in long-range strategic planning regarding employment, income and quality of life.

If the county does not meet the standards for the program, it will not be able to acquire interest rates as low as 2 or 3 percent, Rivers said.

"The Chamber does a good job, whether you want to believe it or not," she said. "If you don't want to believe it, come out to one of their meetings."

A committee made up of Commissioners Greg Brooks, John Pippenger and Daren Waters has been formed to explore options on the employment of a promotion coordinator by the county.

The coordinator would be "a firm or other entity" that would promote tourism and "economic opportunity for the betterment of all businesses and locations in the county," according to the resolution.

While the amendment specifically removes mention of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce from the private act that allocates lodging tax revenues, it does not specifically prohibit funding the Chamber through the program coordinator clause.

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