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Director's exit must trigger improved scrutiny of CVB

November 03, 2003

The forced resignation of Ben Hart, executive director of the Washington County Convention & Visitors' Bureau has brought some disturbing things to light.

Though the agency gets 45 percent of the county's room rent taxes - about $514,000 in tax dollars 2002 - the county commissioners don't have a representative on the board. Nor do they get an annual report of what CVB has accomplished, even though the county's General Assembly delegation does.

It gets worse. City and county officials don't even have a copy of CVB's budget or a list of its board members.

That's not right. Citizens need a full accoiunting, including an audit, of what this agency does and how its spends half a million dollars in tax money.

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Those officials have said that their lack of involvement is due to the fact that CVB was privatized in the mid-1990s, as a result of a study by the county's Tourism Task Force.

That argument doesn't wash. When Community Rescue Service, also a private organization, sought a county contribution of less than half of what CVB gets, it was required to submit its budget and put both city and county officials on its board.

At the very least, elected officials should have an idea of whether CVB is carrying out the Tourism Task Force's 1996 mandate to change its budget priorities.

The call to reorganize came after it was discovered the county tourism department was spending half its budget on salaries. The task force called for a budget that would devote 60 percent to marketing, just 30 percent to salaries and 10 percent to future development.

The key question is: How effective is CVB at generating new business?

In 2001, Hart received $25,000 additional from the county to offset expenses for two events - the Forty and Eight/American Legion convention and the American Junior Golf Association National Torunament.

At the time, Commissioner William Wivell asked how much the two events would generate in hotel tax proceeds. Hart said he didn't know. Afterward he said the Forty and Eight event pumped $2 million to $3 million into the economy.

If that's so, then the investment was worth it. The commissioners need to make CVB justify what it gets with results.

Why? Because tourism is an important industry that brings people to Washington County who spend money without requring much in the way of services.

CVB may indeed be doing a good job, but our county's elected representatives don't know that for a fact, and it's time they learned.

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