Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
The Jacksonville City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allot 40 percent of the city's hotel-motel occupancy tax, up to $70,000, to the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce to help fund its 2013 tourism budget.
“You're asking for $80,000, or 50 percent of funds, but I don't know that we're going to be able to go there,” Mayor Kenneth Melvin told Chamber representatives at the meeting, who had requested that the city approve the same amount given last year.
Just before the vote, Chamber treasurer Randy Gorham told the council that the board “feels that we're doing a really great job carrying out the fiduciary duty that the council has charged us to spend that (hotel occupancy tax) money to get people who come to our town.
“And that's why we have decided to leave the status quo at the $80,000, which is what we have proposed tonight in our budget,” Gorham said.
Chamber Chairman Nathan Jones described the different events and projects supported through the Chamber, including the popular concrete tomato project launched earlier this year, and how they have impacted the city.
“We can talk all night about our successes, which go on and on, but what we want to have is more tax revenue for our city, we want to bring people to town (to build and purchase homes), and we think we've got a good plan. If we've got to accept less, the board will live with it, we know that's the possibility,” Jones said. “We (want) to try to work with everybody tonight to come up with plan where everybody succeeds.
“I always believed that if you have a win-win (situation), that's the best way to go,” he added.
On Wednesday, city finance director Freddy Thomas said that money generated by the city's 7 percent hotel occupancy tax will be used toward the construction of a proposed $3 million civic center in Nichols Green Park on the city's south side.
“The purpose of cutting back (Chamber funding) is so that we can accumulate funds to put into a down payment for the construction cost of the new civic center,” he said, adding that once the project is completed, money would then be used to pay off loans taken out for construction and operating costs of the center.
No timeline has been proposed for building the new center, but “we hope to get something going in 18 months, that's what has been kicked around,” Thomas said.
According to Chamber President Peggy Renfro, the hotel occupancy tax funds equate to about a third of the Chamber's general fund budget, with the membership dues comprising the rest.
In Rusk, Chamber Executive Director Bob Goldsberry said that while city allots the full amount of hotel-motel tax received to be used for tourism, “it's not much money generated because we don't have the amount of rooms that Jacksonville does.”
The funds contribute an estimated 20 percent of the Chamber's operating budget, which also is funded through membership dues and fundraisers like the county fair held in October and the Fair on the Square event in May, he said.
Also during Tuesday's meeting, the council adopted an amendment to an ordinance concerning controlled burning within city limits after local fire chief Paul White said his office had received a number of complaints about smoke generated by fires.
“People have been complaining because of smoke, not the fires,” he said. “In a neighborhood backyard, smoke is going to affect a lot of people.”
The main changes, he said, are the elimination of burns on lots less than two acres in size and burning wood no larger than nine inches in diameter.
“Fires are supposed to be out an hour before dark, and a lot of people burn logs that don't go out in one day” because they're so large, White said.
The amended ordinance does not restrict use of fire pits, he added.