TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County legislators postponed a vote to pass a resolution that would direct surplus funds from the county’s Hotel Tax Fund to local culture and arts organizations at their monthly meeting on Tuesday of last week.
The resolution was written and proposed by the Strategic Tourism Planning Board (STPB), the legislative advisory board responsible for recommendations for grant funding and allocation, and would modify the Budget Adjustment Tourism Program for 2023. The resolution recommends that a “large portion” of the funding from the program be allocated to supporting the stabilization of vulnerable arts and cultural organizations.
Legislator Amanda Champion motioned to postpone voting on the resolution by citing her knowledge of a proposed amendment that is still in the works. She said she is wholly supportive of allocating funds to arts organizations, but has “questions and concerns” about the legality of the additional amendment, which is being proposed by fellow legislator Dan Klein.
Klein’s proposed amendment would effectively take back a portion of the county’s contribution to the Hotel Tax Fund and reallocate it back into the general county fund. The funding for the arts organizations would then be taken from the Hotel Tax Fund as usual.
The Hotel Tax Fund, which is financed by the Hotel Room Occupancy Tax Law, was created in 1989 by the Tompkins County Legislature to improve the local economy by stimulating tourism development. The new tax law implemented a 5% tax on overnight stays and directed that additional revenue to businesses and organizations that boost the tourism economy, often local arts and culture organizations and venues like the State, Hangar and Kitchen Theaters, the Community Arts Partnership, Running 2 Places theatre company, among many others.
Back in March of 2020, for the first time in history, the county legislature unanimously voted to allocate $665,000 out of the body’s Contingent Fund into the Hotel Tax Fund to keep doors open and workers employed in light of the pandemic. In July of 2021, the body voted again to allot $573,000 to the fund, which made the legislature’s total contribution $1.24 million, according to Tompkins County Legislature minutes from the July 6 meeting.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, and people stopped traveling, room tax revenue fell by 58%, leaving significantly less in the Hotel Tax Fund for distribution to arts and cultural organizations that benefit from the tax, according to Tompkins County Legislature minutes from a meeting on July 6, 2021.
In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, Klein explained that when the body approved the bailout, both in 2020 and 2021, everyone on council agreed the depleting amount available for distribution in the Hotel Tax Fund amounted to an urgent situation, and that tourism-centered businesses and organizations, mostly in the arts, needed help, or people would lose their jobs and Ithaca its charm.
“What nobody knew at the time was that 2022 was going to be a record-breaking year for the Hotel Tax Fund. They [hotels, Airbnbs] rebounded from the pandemic like crazy,” Klein said. “Their total revenues went from about $3 million before the pandemic to over $4 million in 2022. It surpassed their budget by over $2 million.”
From his point of view, Klein said the council allocated money to the Hotel Tax Fund at a time when tourism was declining, and in turn, so did the number of overnight stays that financed the fund in 2020 and 2021. Less tax revenue flowing from these overnight stays meant less was available for arts and culture businesses and organizations. But, it turned out, “they were not in trouble and didn’t need bailing out,” Klein said in reference to the 2022 budget surplus.
He said there had been questions regarding the legal validity of his proposed amendment, so he waited to propose it until Bill Troy, the county attorney, could verify its legality. Klein said Troy had been preoccupied with a trial the past two weeks and was unable to do so before the meeting last week.
John spoke out in opposition to postponing the vote during the meeting, and said that while he is usually always in favor of getting legal advice, in this instance, he does not see how legal advice would change the legislature’s view or vote.
Legislator Greg Mezey also spoke in fierce opposition to Champion’s motion to postpone approving the resolution. He said the current climate for arts and culture businesses and organizations is “an emergency.”
He said he is currently aware of two organizations, which he did not name, that say they are on the verge of having to close if they do not receive funds.
“If we lose these organizations due to theoretical procedure or definitional issues, we will have failed in our mission and we will have failed our community,” Mezey said. “Imagine how the public would feel knowing that there was over a million dollars in non-property tax money, sitting there to be used, and we failed to do so.”
Mezey told the room the words he spoke in opposition were not his own, but rather, those of Legislator Klein, written in an email to the STPB in February of 2023. Klein proudly admitted to writing those words and said he meant what he said, “every single one of those words,” and still does.
“In some people’s opinions, it seems as if there’s some suspicion that I’m trying to cut arts funding and I don’t quite know how that happened,” defended Klein. “I will never propose anything to cut arts funding. It’s never happened and it won’t.”
A handful of community members came to voice their positions on the matter, including Megan Barber, Executive Director at Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County and sitting member of the Strategic Tourism Planning Board.
Barber expressed her support for the resolution, but wanted to emphasize “the importance of additional funding” for the Arts and Cultural Development (ACOD) Grants, which are funded by the Hotel Room Occupancy Tax collected in the county.
“Arts and culture organizations are still very much struggling with the continued impact of the pandemic,” Barber said. “Audiences and donors have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and federal recovery funding has come to a close.”
She said she recently surveyed the ACOD grantees and found that six out of 11 grantees said they were at “medium to high risk of permanent closure within the next 12 months.”
Barber echoed Mezey’s concern for arts and cultural organizations closing without receiving additional funds.
“This is a serious issue we’re facing,” Barber said. “This additional proposed funding will go a long way to stabilizing vulnerable organizations and the sector as a whole. It will help organizations make important investments and staffing and operations that will really pay off for years to come in terms of economic impact, tourism impact and local quality of life.”
Out of 14 present members, eight voted to postpone and six declined. The Tompkins County Legislature will meet again on Tuesday, May 2 at 5:30 p.m. to continue discussing the resolution.
Correction: County Attorney Bill Troy is reviewing the amendment for legality, not Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, as had been previously written.