Memo to Council: More information needed

So far, I haven't met anyone who objects to the goals of Williamsburg City Council's proposed Tourism Development Fund. Tourism is a centerpiece of the local economy; making that stronger is generally good.

What is objectionable is the introduction of a brand new local tax and the proposal to increase two others without having fleshed out the details of how they'd work and how the money would be spent.

What is objectionable is the sudden speed at which decisions need to be made.

What is objectionable is the assumption that all of the "tourism stakeholders" who needed to be briefed on the plan were: the Chamber & Tourism Alliance, Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association, Colonial Williamsburg, members of the hotel/motel group.

Notice any "stakeholders" missing from that group?

How about members of the tax-paying public?

This idea of the Tourism Development Fund first came up in January at a council retreat. It was a topic at the April work session. It was on the work session agenda again on June 5 and on the monthly meeting agenda — and available for a vote — on June 8.

Apparently, a fair amount of work on this has been done since January.

In March, when City Manager Marvin Collins presented the proposed 2018 budget, he wrote, "No recommended increase in tax rates."

Apparently, a fair amount changed in the weeks since that budget was introduced.

To find out more about what happened during the first half of the year, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all emails among City Council and staff concerning the Tourism Development Fund.

Some interesting tidbits:

A June 1 note from Mayor Paul Freiling to Councilman Benny Zhang who was frustrated by the lack of information available to council members before the June 5 meeting: "I understand and appreciate your frustration at not yet having all of the information. This is a decision of much gravity that we face, and it may take some time and more conversation to come to resolution."

Apparently not enough gravity that any information would be shared with the folks who elect the mayor and City Council.

This counsel from Adam Steely of Blue Talon Bistro to Collins: "… you can enhance the level of community buy-in in two ways: first, take some short amount of time to share metrics that will be applied and to provide validation of one or more proposed projects and then enact the program without locking in the method of funding; second, allow for a robust and more diverse discussion of funding mechanisms that can unfold in the coming weeks. This will allow more parties to be heard without derailing or picking apart the program."

I guess that's why we now have a meeting — open to the public — at 8 a.m. July 8, to "enhance the level of community buy in."

One of the more contentious conversations in the emails centered on the displeasure that a letter former City Manager Jack Tuttle sent to council and staff had also been sent to the Gazette.

We ran it on May 27. A few passages worth repeating:

"Tax rate increases must be essential to the performance of the city's mission, and their fiscal impact understood. The uses for the new money must be explained explicitly and as concretely as possible. The decision process for enacting new taxes must allow generous time for public involvement, at least a complete budget cycle.

"I do not see how the current proposal meets those tests.

"I am concerned that no pro forma or other analysis shows the degree to which any of the suggested projects will accomplish the stated objective: increased visitation. Without that, how can it be asserted that projects will result in a meaningful benefit to the tourism economy, much less a 'generational investment in tourism product.' "

The common theme to these comments is we need more information.

Let me say it again: We need more information. It needs to be shared clearly and directly — with an opportunity for questions — with all of the "tourism stakeholders," including those of us who live, work and recreate in Williamsburg.

Bellows is editor of the Virginia Gazette. You can reach her at pbellows@vagazette.com or at 345-2347.

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