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Area officials mixed on monitoring tourism

November 22, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

While a private local tourism agency received more than $500,000 in public dollars for this year's budget, some area elected officials have mixed feelings on whether the organization should be more accountable to the public.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose executive director recently was forced to resign amid allegations of misappropriation of agency money, received $514,101 of its $786,301 budget for 2003 from the Washington County hotel-motel tax.

The hotel-motel tax is levied on the price of hotel rooms.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau has made public its budget, but not requests for former executive director Ben Hart's salary. Hart resigned Oct. 27.

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The bureau's attorney, Thomas DiGirolamo, has said the Maryland Public Information Act does not apply to the bureau because it "is not a unit or instrumentality of the state government or of a political subdivision..."

According to state law, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is required only to make annual budget presentations to the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

The bureau had been a part of county government until 1997, when the Washington County Commissioners voted to privatize it.

Members of the delegation said Thursday that the bureau needs more state and county scrutiny.

Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said the County Commissioners are not given annual updates on the bureau's budget or operations.

In 1997, Hart's first year at the bureau, his salary was reported at $50,000.

The bureau's 2003 budget lists salaries and wages at $198,880. The bureau employees five full-time and two part-time employees.

While the City of Hagerstown owns the building in which the Convention and Visitors Bureau is located, Mayor William M. Breichner said this week the city is not associated with the bureau or the tax.

The mayor, however, said it's best for government to keep its books open.

"I would assume that somehow the records are open, but I don't know," Breichner said. "Like any (government) organization, you're probably better off making sure your records are open to the public."

Breichner said the hotel-motel tax probably is mostly paid by people visiting from out-of-town, but it's still public dollars.

"It's a different kind of tax," he said. "But the one thing you can say is it is public funds."

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said the commissioners haven't discussed whether they are interested in having more oversight in the affairs of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I guess I haven't really given this much thought," Wivell said. "I don't know that the county having oversight would add anything to their operation."

He said it may be possible that the county could include the Convention and Visitors Bureau in its annual audit.

"Since I've been in office, I was always led to believe that they were accomplishing their mission and their setup was working well," Wivell said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the Convention and Visitors Bureau board has done a good job of managing the agency, and he didn't think additional oversight is necessary.

"It's worked well. They have increased tourism in the county," Snook said. "At this point in time, I don't see the need for it."

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said it's possible the commissioners could consider having a representative on the bureau's board who would report to the commissioners on financial and other operational matters.

But he said he wasn't sure that there's an accountability issue with the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"There seemed to be a problem, and the board caught the problem and corrected the problem," Kercheval said. "As a citizen, I would want citizen oversight on how they spend the money, and that's what we're getting."

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