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Jefferson County’s towns seek uses for bed tax revenue

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What’s a town to do?

Countywide, Jefferson County’s bed tax revenue has climbed at an astonishing rate. From $460,000 in 2000 to $850,000 in 2011, it has almost doubled in the last decade.

But what does that increase look like for towns where the hotels generating the revenue are located? They split their revenue with the county, which sends the lion’s share to the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council. Left to its own devices, each municipality spends its take in a highly individualized manner, some struggling to find the right programs to support.

“We don’t have a windfall,” said Clayton Supervisor Justin A. Taylor. “The county had a windfall and saved it up.”

Clayton sends 100 percent of its bed tax, or occupancy tax, revenue to the 1000 Islands Clayton Area Chamber of Commerce. Last year, the town budgeted $12,000 in bed tax revenue but collected less than that, Mr. Taylor said.

In contrast, the town of LeRay received “quite a bit of revenue” last year, according to Supervisor Ronald C. Taylor, more than $40,000.

But LeRay isn’t on the water like Clayton and “it’s often difficult to find the right programs to spend money on,” Mr. Taylor said.

The town generally authorizes $2,500 a year to be sent to the Jefferson County Fair and appropriates money for cash prizes at “community days” hosted by local fire departments.

Right now, the town is in talks with the Evans Mills Fire Department to purchase a digital sign that would be placed alongside a road to promote events and attractions.

The revenue left over at the end of the year, which is “considerable,” according to Mr. Taylor, is deposited in the general fund.

The town of LeRay does not have a Chamber of Commerce.

At one time, the town of Alexandria was the county’s top occupancy tax-generating municipality. Now that distinction belongs to the city of Watertown, which has added 670 rooms since 2005.

Town of Alexandria Supervisor Dale D. Hunneyman said bed tax revenue, which the town keeps in a separate fund, has been declining over the last three or four years, during which time the town has lost four or five motels.

The majority of the revenue, which totaled $96,113 last year, is given to the Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce to promote events and activities that encourage visitors to stay the night in the area’s hotels and motels, including the TI River Run Bike Rally in June and Bill Johnston’s Pirates Day and Rockin’ the Bay in August.

There is “very little left over” at the year’s end, Mr. Hunneyman said.

In December, Jody L. Pettit, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn — one of the city’s newest hotels — said she would like to see officials spend more money promoting the city as a destination, marketing itself to bus tours, associations and teams.

Right now, holidays are a big attraction for the city.

Mr. Hunneyman called them “soft times” because that is when his town’s tourism season is over.

The town of Watertown receives between $25,000 and $31,000 in bed tax revenue per year that the town sends to the Disabled Persons Action Organization to help promote its concert series, according to Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett.

With disparate seasons and attractions, county and municipal officials have endeavored to find a way to promote the county as a whole without favoring any region.

The Board of Legislators’ Planning and Development Committee voted Tuesday night to recommend a proposal to spend $150,000 of excess bed tax money — the county has averaged $110,000 in surplus money per year since 2009 — to extend tourism seasons and areas.

One of the programs would be to spend $25,000 to obtain high-definition video and photography of county tourism highlights, including “areas that typically don’t get the coverage,” according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Another $50,000 would be spent on promoting the airport, which the county is trying to spin off into its own department, to Canadian business and leisure travelers.

The effort is aimed at promoting the county as a whole, not just for weekend stays but weeklong visits, according to Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing.

That logic dictates that visitors attracted to the county by its traditional tourist destinations who stay for an extended period of time will be more apt to explore other areas of the county.

“It helps the center of Jefferson County by attracting them to the outskirts,” as one legislator put it.

Some officials have other ideas for how to move forward with the trend of hotel growth.

Mr. Bartlett said Jefferson County’s bed tax rate is below the state average and advocates that the county bump its rate to 4 percent with a provision the county keep 100 percent of the increase to put toward debt service on Jefferson Community College’s proposed multi-use facility on the site of the former Jefferson County Home for the Aged, also known as Whispering Pines.

“This is an opportune time for Jefferson County to help the college out with their proposal without increasing the property tax burden on residents,” Mr. Bartlett said, adding, “I don’t think you’d see much backlash” from hotel owners because the tourism-related events at the facility would bring in visitors.

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