The Old Essex County Courthouse
ELIZABETHTOWN — A handful of county department heads delivered their annual reports to the Essex County Board of Supervisors Wednesday, Feb. 12, bringing rays of cautious optimism to a cash-strapped county.
County treasurer Michael Diskin told the finance committee that occupancy tax generated $1.9 million in revenue for the county in 2013, up $120,000 from 2012 (6.7 percent) making it the largest amount of revenue generated since the tax was implemented in 2000.
Westport town supervisor Daniel Connell told the board he hoped a “small slice” of that revenue would be made available to promote smaller towns like Westport, namely for funding their struggling visitor center and promoting specific events.
“We have four or five bed and breakfasts,” he said. “We contribute.”
Connell said an additional $3,000 or $4,000 to help promote his community would produce a significant return.
He asked Diskin about receiving some additional funds from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), the agency to which 95 percent of the occupancy tax revenue is handed over to promote the county.
“I wish we could take a look at this,” Connell concluded. “A little bit of money would increase tourism and keep our visitor centers open. It’s a small impact [on ROOST] but a huge impact on individual towns. What I’m asking for is a way the towns might receive a set amount, something that we can budget in our tourism-related activities.”
“You’d have to address that with them,” said Diskin.
Connell, who said that he was very appreciative of everything that ROOST has done for the region, later told the Valley News that while Westport has discussed the idea of reaching out to the agency at board meetings, they haven’t yet contacted them directly.
“If the occupancy tax doesn’t grow, we’re not doing our job,” said ROOST chief James McKenna, who attributed the increase from last year, in part, to the recently-opened Hampton Inn and Suites in Lake Placid, a facility that upped the county’s total number of hotel rooms by five percent.
McKenna said ROOST is happy to work alongside town agencies and community organizations to promote events designed to drive visitation to the region.
“Westport has some great opportunities and we have to look at strengthening the infrastructure — that’s where we want to be more helpful.”
ROOST breaks marketing efforts up into four different regions, said McKenna. Westport lies within the Lake Champlain Region and is promoted by the agency within that organizational structure. ROOST's promotional efforts include traditional outreach paired with a strong web presence on social media and on the agency's online properties.
Connell had previously expressed support for a two percent occupancy tax increase, bringing the total from three percent up to five percent.
“A two percent increase won’t pass,” said Wilmington town supervisor Randy Preston. “I’ve received word from the higher-ups and I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Preston is referring to the state officials who have final authority over a potential increase, including the state legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both of whom have indicated they aim to keep tax rates stable.
Preston said he’s going to closely follow what neighboring Franklin County will do.
“The proof is in the figures,” Chesterfield town supervisor Gerald Morrow said. “It helps your county budget — it’s one of the best things that Essex County ever did.”
Morrow said the occupancy tax alleviates the financial burden of towns having to draw tourism-related funding from revenue generated by the property tax.
Westport, once a bustling vacation getaway for high society, saw its star fade in the 1950s with the rise of automobiles offering a more diverse spread of vacation opportunities.
The town’s attractions include Lake Champlain, the Westport Marina, the Westport Golf Course, the Depot Theatre, the National Register of Historic Places-listed Essex County Fairgrounds, several fine restaurants and a historical walking tour.
It is also the birthplace of the nationally-known Adirondack Chair, the simple wooden chair originally conceptualized for tourist usage, in 1903.
“Tourists can come and they don’t even need a car to get around,” said Connell.
County clerk Joseph Provoncha reported a total $8,271,805 received by the clerk’s office for the 2013 fiscal year, a figure up 1.5 percent from 2012.
Local mortgage tax was up 13 percent from 2012 — $411,732 against 2012’s $363,894, an indicator of a rebounding real estate market.
DWI fines increased by a hearty 47.8 percent this year to $15,889, an indication that, at the very least, county residents are continuing to get clipped by law enforcement officials for driving under the influence.
Provoncha told lawmakers he was pleased the DMV was in the black for the first time in many years, with actual profit at $1,733.68.
“It’s not a large number,” said Provoncha, “but that’s good for us.”
Provoncha also put forth a resolution to hire a new deputy county clerk to replace a retiree.
Morrow and Keene chief Bill Ferebee later presented Provoncha with a plaque and resolution of congratulations for the medal, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontiface, he received last December from the Vatican as a result of his work with the Catholic Church.
Real Property Tax Service Director Charli Lewis told lawmakers that 87 percent of county homeowners have now registered for STAR, the state initiative designed to lower property taxes.
While the original deadline of Dec. 31 has passed, county residents are still allowed to sign up on the website, said Lewis.
“If they want to retain their basic STAR exemption, you need to register,” said Lewis.
Those who fail to do so will be removed from the STAR ranks and will have to contact the Department of Tax and Finance for an appeal — not the assessor.
Lewis also reminded the public to check the tentative assessment roll on May 1 to confirm their registration.