Niagara Gazette

June 17, 2013

County lawmakers battle over NTCC funding

By Joyce Miles
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — While the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. received a dose of good news Thursday with word that the casino cash standoff had been settled and that funding source was restored, the agency is still fighting for every penny it can get from local municipalities.

The latest showdown for local funding involves the Niagara County Legislature.

Signs of a struggle within the county Legislature emerged Tuesday, when legislative Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, proposed legislation to have the county re-sign with NTCC for 15 years — and Majority Caucus Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, issued a statement suggesting the agency should get only a one-year extension on its current contract, while “an accounting of (its) stewardship” of bed tax money is performed.

The county’s existing 10-year contract with NTCC, by which the agency is the tourism promotion agency-of-record authorized to receive and spend local bed tax revenue, expired June 1.

In addition to the casino cash, which pays the agency about $1 million a year, NTCC is funded by three municipalities: the cities of Niagara Falls and Lockport, which collect bed tax within their borders, and Niagara County, which collects it everywhere else. Bed tax is a 4 percent charge on all hotel/motel room rentals, paid by the guests.

Lately Niagara Falls has been turning over $1 million a year in bed tax revenue, Lockport about $90,000 a year and the county about $80,000 a year to NTCC.

Criticism of the agency by both Niagara Falls and Lockport city leaders has increased over time. A group of Niagara Falls council members and Lockport Mayor Michael Tucker have both made pointed comments suggesting their cities don’t get their money’s worth from NTCC. While Tucker complains about the agency lavishing attention on Niagara Falls at Lockport’s expense, the agency’s critics on the Falls council, who also typically oppose Mayor Paul Dyster, voice objections to NTCC publicizing attractions outside their city.

According to Virtuoso, Republican county officials have been sitting on a long-term renewal proposal by NTCC since February. He said he’s pushing for a vote on renewal now because it’s overdue, and for NTCC it’s becoming urgent.

“There’s political intervention going on here and I’m not going to stand for it,” Virtuoso said. “Tourism is too important to the county.”

Updegrove said in his statement that an accounting of NTCC’s past performance is “long overdue.”

The agency, formed in 2003 from the merging of the county tourism department and the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau, is authorized by contract with the county to receive 75 percentof all bed tax collected within the county and spend it promoting tourism.

Updegrove recites more common complaints by the critics — “insufficient interaction with host communities by NTCC leadership, a lack of communication or updates from NTCC, a lack of quantifiable and verifiable results (and) excessive personnel costs” — and says the county ought to be sure all the stakeholders are getting “optimum results for their investment” before any agree to rehire NTCC.

A one-year extension of the current contract would guarantee the agency’s funding isn’t cut off in the midst of the local tourism season, and buy time for the stakeholders to assess its performance and renegotiate their contracts, Updegrove said.

“If the NTCC and its board are confident that they are doing the best job possible, there should be no hesitation on their part to cooperate,” he said. “The taxpayers deserve transparency before any long-term contract is signed.”

Virtuoso charged the one-year extender is a stalling tactic by Republicans who want to “control” NTCC and oust its oft-maligned CEO, John Percy.

“They’ve had more than enough time to ask the questions that they wanted to ask. They’re just playing games now,” he said.

Updegrove’s statement called out Percy personally, accusing the CEO of “orchestrating” a pro-NTCC lobbying effort by panicked tour attraction operators. Letters supplied by Percy were signed by the operators and mailed to their county legislators.

Percy defended the letter-writing campaign by tour operators, saying more than 60 of them countywide agreed to sign and mail one to their legislator. He added that the campaign got started after a legislator told him that county leaders wanted to hear from NTCC’s “constituents,” not just agency personnel, regarding the value of the county’s contract with it.

Percy said a few dozen operators voluntarily “expanded” on his base letter with personalized testimonials, and statistics showing the growth they’ve enjoyed while being promoted by NTCC. The operators of several wineries, the Maid of the Mist, the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, Fort Niagara, the Herschell Carousel Museum and Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises were among them.

“How could I put fear into 60 companies to do this?” Percy asked.

NTCC’s proposed 15-year contract with the county was drafted by agency staff and volunteers including its attorney, Percy, CFO Pamela Fekete and executive board members. It’s largely the same as the existing contract, with a few “tweaks,” Percy said.

Those tweaks include a longer term and — to address critics’ complaints about the legitimacy of agency self-reported statistics on local tourism growth and returns on investments — a proposal to have NTCC’s performance evaluated by an “outside” monitor every three years, Percy said. Terms say that upon a poor performance review, the county could exit the contract and cut off NTCC’s funding.

A one-year extension of the existing contract won’t help NTCC be “proactive” in promoting the county, Percy said. The groundwork for certain programs is being laid three to four years in advance.

“Our constituents, meaning the hotel, attraction and event operators, will suffer greatly if programming is not effective for more than one year,” he said.

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