At a special meeting October 17, members of the governing body of Blanco tackled the issue of the disbursement of $70,000 in Hotel Occupancy Tax monies to various community agencies. As the revenue from these taxes has risen, the number of community organizations seeking money has risen as well. Justin Bragiel, president of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, gave council members a summary of the eligibility requirements agencies must meet under Section 351 of the Texas Tax Code, foremost of which is “putting heads in beds.” Bragiel explained that it is not enough for an organization to promote tourism or local projects if these efforts do not result in increased hotel/motel occupancy. He stressed the fiduciary aspect of the disbursement of funds by the city, which should be accountable for its decisions in using the money wisely. Recipients must also be accountable and provide evidence after the fact that the money was well spent.
The first criterion under which HOT money can be awarded is for a visitor information center, which may be open varied hours and may reside in a chamber of commerce building, a structure such as the courthouse, or even a gas station or restaurant. In answer to questions by council member Maria Guerrero, Bragiel responded that the visitor center does not have to be open a certain number of hours, nor does it have to have restrooms. Furthermore, a city may have multiple visitor centers.
The next criterion relevant to Blanco is a requirement for using funds for advertising and promotion to encourage tourists to come to events and spend the night. An organization can contract advertising out to another entity; and advertising can be traditional, such as billboards and printed matter, or it could be internet advertising. A minimum of one percent of the tax rate of the city must be spent for advertising every year by the organization.
Other criteria which determine eligibility include expenditures that promote the arts, fund historic restoration and preservation, fund transportation systems for tourists, and fund signage in city centers directing tourists to sights and attractions. But as Bragiel reiterated, all these criteria are in addition to the main goal of “putting heads in beds.”
The following entities have requested HOT money, some for particular events and others for ongoing programs: Blanco Rodeo Association, $5,200; Buggy Barn Museum, $36,892.64; Vaaler Creek Golf Club, $10,000; Blanco Band Boosters, $5,000; Boozefighter Motorcycle organization, an unspecified amount for an event September 12-15, 2013; Blanco Chamber of Commerce, $70,000; Old Blanco County Courthouse, $30,000; Pioneer Museum, $1,500; and Blanco Performing Arts, $700, for a total of $159,292.64.
Although Mayor Homan had said at budget workshop time that representatives of organizations would be allowed to speak at this meeting to make their requests, he at first said that this was not a public hearing. Council member Bobby Mack expressed concern that the Blanco Chamber had requested $70,000, all the available funds, up from $45,000 last year. Therefore, the decision was made to allow chamber director Rick Sebenoler to speak. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “We haven’t had a great reputation, and we want to change that. We want to take a leadership role and put all events on the chamber calendar and end needless competition between the courthouse and the chamber.” Both organizations have requested funds for a center, with the chamber requesting $25,000 for a joint center. Council member Al Turner asked why, if both organizations will be open anyway, each one needs funding for a visitor center. OBCCPS spokesperson Jan Brieger responded that the courthouse needs paid staff to coordinate the many events scheduled there, and that so far in 2012, over 400 hotel or motel rooms have been rented by people attending courthouse events, with 29 more events scheduled for the remainder of this year.
In the discussion it became apparent that the chamber had never approached the courthouse about a joint visitor center. Maria Guerrero said, “You need to talk to them before you come to us.” Jan Brieger responded, “We want to cooperate, but we can’t know about things that we don’t know about.” The chamber has also requested $5,000 funding for a World War II Museum to be housed in the courthouse, adding another museum to the two existing ones, the Pioneer Museum and the Buggy Barn Museum. Jan Brieger said that option is not currently on the table for the courthouse.
Bragiel said his organization has a recommended funding application for agencies to fill out in order to qualify for HOT money, much the same way a grant application would be completed. Another form would be completed after an event to evaluate its success. He also recommended selecting a committee of community members and business owners to develop guidelines, since every city has its own specific needs. The issue of whether those seeking funds should be on the committee was raised, but Bragiel insisted that stakeholders should be on the committee. Any entity requesting funds would come before the committee rather than presenting requests to council.
A list of suggested committee members included the following: Bobby McClung, Maria Guerrero, and Martin Sauceda, alternate for Bobby Mack (city council), Ronda Huether-Etzel (city employee), Darrell West (Blanco Rodeo Association), Dennis Moore (individual and Buggy Barn owner), Jan Brieger (OBCCPS), Rick Sebenoler (chamber director), and Linda Sullivan (hotel representative). At a subsequent city council meeting held October 24, council voted to approve the list.