Aberdeen’s lodging tax report draws criticism

Some community members, including some Aberdeen City Council members, aren’t happy with the recommendations for which projects get funded through Aberdeen’s lodging tax fund.

The issue came up at Wednesday night’s council meeting, which ended with the council sending the recommendations back to the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee for further review.

At the meeting, the council voted on this year’s report from the committee, which determines how the funds raised by the 2019 lodging tax are allocated. It’s a state tax on hotel rooms that is partially returned to Aberdeen and set aside for projects to promote tourism in the city.

During the public comment period, Sylvia Dickerson, a member of the Our Aberdeen group, who also serves on the Lodging Tax committee, said that Greater Grays Harbor Inc., the economic development agency funded by governments and local donations, was allocated an unfairly large portion of this year’s lodging tax funds — $20,000 of the total $75,000 — and requested the council to table the report.

One of the programs that received half funding in the recommendations was the effort to put flower baskets on downtown lampposts.

Dickerson said one of her complaints was that Greater Grays Harbor CEO Dru Garson and council member Karen Rowe (two of the four lodging tax committee members at the Oct. 19 meeting) interpreted the state’s code on lodging tax funds more narrowly so that “proof of heads in the beds” was the primary consideration for awarding funds.

“This procedure was a major change from previous years and was not communicated to the applicants in advance so they did not provide those numbers,” Dickerson read from a statement at the council meeting. “Little consideration was given to charm, civic pride or new projects with no track record (but) which may in the future prove to be economic engines for Aberdeen.”

Dickerson and others at the meeting lamented that a couple members of the committee weren’t at the last meeting on Oct. 19, and said that likely had an effect on which projects received or were denied funding.

While Garson is a permanent member of the lodging tax committee, Rowe was a stand-in at the last meeting for council member Jeff Cook, a City Council member and the committee’s chairman who has been out of town recently. Dickerson said the two other members are local hotel managers, and that one of them did not come to the Oct. 19 meeting.

In the committee’s recommendations, Aberdeen events such as Summerfest and Winterfest received none of the $5,000 or $10,000 they requested, respectively. The Aberdeen Revitalization Movement, which promotes downtown activities, also did not receive any of the $15,000 it requested.

The volunteers (with some help from the city) who plant and maintain the flower baskets that hang from downtown light poles, got $9,500 the last time they asked for money. This time they asked for $10,000, but they got $5,000 in the recommendations.

It was a fairly packed meeting at Aberdeen City Hall on Wednesday, and a few in the audience were people representing the organizations that either received lodging tax money in the recommendations or were snubbed. Winterfest organizer Bobbi McCracken and The Daily World’s publisher Stan Woody also spoke at the meeting requesting that the report be tabled.

When it came time to vote on the report, several council members said they felt it needed reconsideration. Tim Alstrom was the first, who made an amendment to the report recommending they cut $7,000 that was requested for traffic control projects in the city. That amendment was unanimously approved, so the lodging tax committee will meet again within the next 45 days to consider removing the traffic control funds and consider revising any other parts of their report.

Following Alstrom’s amendment, council member Pete Schave said he was concerned about the amount of funding for Greater Grays Harbor, and made an amendment requesting that the lodging tax committee reconsider how much they allocate them.

“I don’t want that going back to the committee without that being considered,” said Schave.

Council member Dee Anne Shaw agreed with Dickerson, saying she doesn’t want the number of people staying in hotels to be the only main determinant of whether a project receives funding. She added that in the past the recommendations have been less contentious.

“Something went wrong this year, and I just want a do-over,” said Shaw. “Two of the four members of the committee were the people speaking tonight, and they got to decide what frame of mind they came to the table with.”

Council member Kathi Prieto also took issue with the lack of a full lodging tax committee at the last meeting, and made another amendment requesting that all of the committee’s members be present at the next meeting. Both Schave and Prieto’s amendments were denied in a voice vote by the council, but several loudly voted “yes” for both.

There were several other issues with the report Dickerson mentioned in her comments, including her claim that “Discover Grays Harbor” — the tourism website run by Greater Grays Harbor that was seeking funding — didn’t mention Aberdeen, but prominently gave attention to the beach towns of Westport and Ocean Shores.

Garson disagreed with Dickerson’s suggestion that Discover Grays Harbor lacked content related to Aberdeen, and said it advertises a number of the city’s hotels, coffee houses, pubs, wineries, a Kurt Cobain tour, and more. In responding to Dickerson’s comments that Garson said Aberdeen had to “pay to play” to get better coverage on his website, Garson told The Daily World that may have been related to comments about his recent work with Ocean Shores and Westport after they provided additional lodging tax funds to promote the coast.

“This past year I partnered together with the Ocean Shores and Westport lodging tax (funds) and they provided funding for us to promote Washington’s Coast, so we’ve been providing some shoulder-season marketing to promote activities along the coast,” he said. “With her phrase ‘pay to play,’ if you want to promote your area, you have to invest funds to do that.”

Both Garson and Dickerson said at the meeting that this year’s funds were particularly difficult to allocate, as there was $150,000 in requests among the 18 applicants but only $75,000 they could give out.

Aberdeen Parks Director Stacie Barnum said Jeff Cook would be the chairman of the committee’s next meeting, where they will be allowed to change the report however they want. The group has 45 days to meet and send a report back to be reviewed by the council again.