Tourism Commission Behind On More Than $20K In Bill To County
Darren Doyle, story:
Edmonson County Fiscal Court met by video and audio conference for the third consecutive meeting on Monday, May 11, 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
A short list was discussed on the agenda with the most discussion aimed at $22,000 unpaid bill owed by the Edmonson County Tourism Commission to the fiscal court. An agenda item stated, "Approve to hold previously approved payment of $3,645.28 and future payments until $22,000 is paid in full by Tourism Board as recommended by the County Attorney." The amount of $3,645.28 has been collected by the county in room taxes.
Judge Executive Wil Cannon explained the current situation with further guidance from County Treasurer Tammi Willhite. Cannon said local room and rec taxes are collected by the Judge Executive's office with all room taxes being turned over to the tourism commission. All in-county businesses that provide lodging are required to pay this quarterly tax. The tourism commission is directed by Rhonda Clemmons, under the authority of the tourism commission board, with Shaska Hines currently serving as president. Clemmons is a full time county employee with salary and benefits but the tourism board pays the county $8,000 per quarter for their portion of her salary. The Edmonson County Planning Commission also contributes to Clemmons' salary and benefits package for her role as secretary there.
Judge Cannon said that the Tourism Commission did not pay their second quarter fees, which was discovered at the end of the third quarter. Cannon said when the commission was asked about the past due payments they told him they didn't have any money due to the coronavirus pandemic; however, Cannon also said over that time period, the county turned over more than $50,000 in room taxes over to them, much of which was prior to the pandemic. This raised the question of why the commission would track the room taxes from local businesses, the taxes were then collected by the county, the money then turned over to the commission from the county, then the commission making a payment back to the county for their portion of Clemmons' salary.
Treasurer Willhite said that in the beginning of the room taxes, the Judge Executive's office handled all of it but over time, the Tourism Commission was brought in to handle a portion of it.
"I'm not placing blame on any certain person or throwing anyone under the bus, but simply put, there are problems and discrepancies and I think it would be simpler in the future in the Judge Executive's office goes back to handling it all again," she said.
Magistrate Mark Meeks asked if the county could request a full financial report from the commission in the same manner it does for county fire departments, to which the judge said yes. The county collects fire dues through property taxes and turns those over to fire departments.
Sheriff Shane Doyle asked why his office didn't collect those taxes, because tax collection is part of the sheriff's job, and Cannon said he did not know.
Judge Cannon also noted that Clemmons was laid off immediately when it was discovered that Tourism couldn't pay their bill. He also said the county provides office space for Clemmons at no cost to Tourism, Planning Commission, or the Chamber of Commerce; three organizations for which Clemmons works. For the county, Clemmons' duties are to track and invoice local businesses for room taxes.
Treasurer Willhite said once businesses open up, the county will be able to recover the funds quickly and discussed Mammoth Cave Lodge as an example, who she said normally pays between $11K and $18K in a quarter for room taxes.
We contacted Rhonda Clemmons after the meeting and asked her for her comments about the situation.
"The entire process is seasonal anyway," she said. "There is more funding available during the summer season months because that's when hotels and lodging are seeing the most business. But besides that, we're simply in a budget shortfall and it's caused problems with our funding."
Clemmons also said that the Tourism Commission has had difficulty working around not only the bankruptcy of Park Mammoth, but also what she said was failure of enforcement by the former administration for the resort to pay their taxes to the county. The resort still had about $60K of unpaid room taxes to the county prior to their bankruptcy, all of which goes to Tourism. She also said many local Airbnb properties are not being taxed properly and that also hurts revenue.
While magistrates were asked to vote on withholding the small amount of collected taxes from the Tourism Commission until the bill was paid, Cannon said he didn't think it was legal to do it, according to the language in the ordinance that requires the county to turn room taxes collected to the Tourism Commission.
There was no vote and the item was tabled until the next meeting.
The court also discussed a recent backhoe accident with the county road department that caused considerable damage to a county backhoe, according to Judge Cannon. He said a county employee suffered minor injuries when a backhoe overturned during some work last week and that the cab of the machine would likely have to be replaced. He also said that while insurance would cover the damages, he estimated that county insurance rates are likely to increase as a result.
Update on County Property For Animal Shelter Use:
Magistrate Corey VanMeter asked about the property that was purchased from Rollin Rountree in September of 2019 for use of a future animal shelter and county storage. Stipulations in the purchase contract said the seller would be penalized $1000 per week for time spent at the property past the acquisition date, which is June 1, 2020. Personal property of the seller still remains at the site and Judge Cannon said he had spoken to Mr. Rountree about the items, which include several vehicles and other equipment.
Cannon said that the seller told him it wouldn't be likely he could move all the equipment by the acquisition date because the ground was too wet. Magistrate Edd Rich said that should have no affect on the contract and that the seller should have made other arrangements prior to now. Mag. VanMeter said he'd received several questions about the status of property since it was in his district.
The court also voted to:
Judge Cannon noted that the next meeting will be in-person; however, it was the court's hope to limit the meeting to 10 people or less if possible. He said social distancing would be enforced and masks and hand sanitizer would be requested. The meeting date change from Monday to Tuesday (5/25-5/26) was due to the Memorial Day holiday.