By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD — A debate among Mercer County Commissioners on whether hotel/motel tax revenue can legally be spent on the county airport and libraries continued last week.
The issue once again surfaced during a discussion at a meeting Tuesday, prompted by a vote on accepting an application form for entities requesting money from the county for tourism-related infrastructure, projects or initiatives.
The money allocated comes from the county’s share of the hotel/motel tax revenue.
But earlier this year, the executive director of the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Jamie Null, complained that hotel/motel tax revenue was being appropriated to the Mercer County Airport and libraries, which, she said, does not follow state Code on appropriate expenditures of the funds.
Null told the commissioners at a meeting in May that all revenue from the hotel/motel tax should be spent primarily to bring people into the county as part of tourism efforts.
In 2015-16, CVB received 50 percent of the almost $730,000 raised from the tax, or $364,118, while the county kept the same amount, a 50-50 split that has been routine.
But the county gave the Mercer County Airport $125,000 and the Bluefield and Princeton libraries a total of $40,000, money that should be spent directly on tourism related infrastructure, projects or initiatives, she said.
In May, Charleston attorney Brian Helmick came to a commission meeting at the request of the CVB and told the commissioners the hotel/motel tax was put into place by the state Legislature to “create a funding opportunity for localities.”
How the money should be spent is spelled out in the Code, he said, although some areas do have a degree of ambiguity, which gives “some leeway … to elected officials, but in the vast majority of cases is very clear on what it can be spent on and nothing else.”
Helmick said the intent of the Code related to airports is to provide funding if the airport offers commercial passenger service.
“If there is no passenger service in and out, I would be hard-pressed to make a case for it,” he said.
Mercer County’s airport no longer offers passenger service and is a general aviation airport, primarily used by private aircraft.
The specific passage in the Code under permissible expenditures says: “Passenger air service incentives and subsidies directly related to increasing passenger air service availability to tourism destinations in this state…”
Helmick said funding for libraries from the tax has been an issue in other areas of the state.
“I have yet to find a provision under the Code to fund libraries directly,” he said. “Programs (offered by the libraries) can be funded, but not libraries themselves. I do not believe there is specific authority under the state Code to permit funding of public libraries.”
During the June meeting, commissioners agreed to look into finding another funding source for the money appropriated to the airport and libraries
However, at Tuesday’s meeting, two of the three commissioners, Gene Buckner and Bill Archer, expressed having second thoughts about changing the funding mechanism for the airport and libraries.
On Friday, Buckner said he thinks the wording in the Code on funding airports is ambiguous.
“I’m not sure it does (prohibit funding non-commercial passenger airports) and I’m sure it doesn’t.” he said.
Buckner said he wants to hear more legal opinions about it before making a final decision on the airport funding as well as giving money from that revenue to libraries.
Buckner pointed out that recent traffic at the airport related to the Bluefield Coal Show as well as others visiting the county using non-commercial passenger services still bring in business and tourists.
Commissioner Bill Archer also would like to see further study on the issues.
“I have questions about them,” he said. “I think there is some language here in the Code that’s ambiguous and we may need to get some clarifications. We are looking into it.”
Archer said as far as he is concerned, libraries represent an art form, writing, and qualify for the funding under culture and the arts that are related to tourism appeal.
“My concern is, we are servants of the people,” he said. “We serve the people of Mercer County. The commission’s duty is to serve them in the way we see fit. I know we are guided by the Code … but we are going to look at everything … that’s our job.”
Archer said that some points of the law are vague, “depending on your particular reading of it, you can read different things into it.”
He called the controversy “dancing on the head of a pin.”
“You serve the people and do the best you can with what you’ve got, and we need to be good stewards … for the people,” he said.
However, Commissioner Greg Puckett says he sees no ambiguity in the Code.
“In my interpretation of the Code, we cannot give to the airport under the hotel/motel money,” he said. “That money should be spent for tourism … and tourism related activities.”
While Puckett said he supports the airport and wants the county to help fund its operations, the county cannot set up what amounts to a funding system using the hotel/motel tax revenue.
Finding another funding source is the answer, he said, but admits it’s not easy.
“We simply don’t have the operational funds to move the county forward the way we need to,” he said. “We have just enough to maintain, but not enough to grow.”
Null also sees no ambiguity in the Code.
“The CVB board will continue to work diligently to follow the motel/hotel tax Code,” she said, adding that the state Code is “clear on how tourism money should be spent.”
“While we do appreciate the needs in Mercer County, the Code explains that airports that do not have passenger service for the public do not fall under tourism attractions,” she said. “We fully agree with Brian’s (Helmick) statement about those issues.”
Null said earlier this year that the revenue from the hotel/motel tax is increasing, with almost $800,000 generated in 2016.
Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org.