MAHONING VALLEY Officials: No more money to CVB



Commissioners will seek a special audit of the convention and visitors bureau.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County commissioners have no intention of handing over any more money to the Youngstown/Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
And if they have their way, the CVB won't be spending any more of the money it already has.
Commissioners said Thursday that they are considering asking the Ohio Auditor's Office to conduct a special audit of funds being held by the CVB, which was once the agency designated by commissioners to promote travel and tourism in the county.
"We just want to ensure that the money they have is being spent as it was intended," said Joseph Caruso, county special projects director.
Commissioners formed the CVB in 1986 and handed over all revenue from a 3-percent county bed tax for operating expenses.
Voted to stop funding
In October, commissioners voted to discontinue funding to the CVB. Instead, 2 percent of the bed-tax revenue goes toward operation of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Airport and the rest goes to a new visitors bureau made up of county officials.
The bureau still has about $400,000 in bed-tax revenue it had collected before commissioners cut off its funding.
Commissioners said they met earlier this week with CVB director Tom Lyden, who asked them to pay for bureau expenses such as promotional brochures and billboards.
"Let's just say it the way it is," Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said. "They have more than $400,000 set aside, but they're not going to continue to do marketing."
Sherlock said if that's the case, the bureau is paying only employee salaries and for lawyers to represent it in a lawsuit it filed against commissioners last year. She said the money should be used for tourism, not wages and lawyers.
That's why commissioners said they will ask the state to examine the bureau's books and make sure the money is being spent properly.
But Auditor George Tablack said if commissioners don't act quickly, the bureau could spend all the money it has left and the issue would be moot. He suggested that commissioners ask the county prosecutor's office to file a countersuit against the bureau and freeze its assets.
What's been spent
He said the bureau already has spent some $200,000 in bed-tax revenue since Oct. 9, 2003, when commissioners made the funding switch.
"Are they entitled to those funds, even though they are no longer recognized as our travel and tourism agency?" Sherlock asked. "We need to find out."
Atty. Lawrence Richards, CVB president, said the agency still intends to spend money on marketing the area. What it wants is for the new board to pick up the tab for brochures, billboards and other promotional costs incurred by the old board.
He said since the new board is receiving part of the bed-tax money, it should be responsible for those costs.
The bureau filed a lawsuit against commissioners last year, challenging a change in state law that allowed them to alter the distribution of bed-tax revenue. That case is pending in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Another lawsuit filed
The CVB filed another suit last week, asking the courts to force Tablack to hand over bed-tax revenue that was collected from June to Oct. 8, 2003. Tablack has resisted because he questions whether the bureau is entitled to more money since it's no longer the county's designated travel group.
Prosecutor Paul Gains recommended in a legal opinion that Tablack pay the money to the CVB, but Sherlock said commissioners won't give the bureau any more money until the legal issues are resolved.
"I just don't understand why we would continue funding it at this point," she said.
The new visitors bureau held its first meeting Thursday afternoon. The only members are Caruso and Commissioner Ed Reese. The county administrator also is supposed to be a member, but that position is vacant.
Reese said the panel needs expanded to include representatives from travel agencies and hotels in the county. The panel then must decide whether to oversee promotional activities on its own, or to contract those services with a private organization.
bjackson@vindy.com

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