County should focus on bed tax

When it comes to collecting and spending Blair County’s bed tax, paid by those who stay at local lodging facilities, commissioners need to take an active role.

Now that Explore Altoona, formerly the Allegheny Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau, is ending its tenure as convention center manager, the division of the county’s bed tax revenue of $520,000 annually has come up for discussion.

Explore Altoona has taken a position that it should get 75 percent of the revenue to promote all of the area’s tourism options. The other 25 percent, Explore Altoona believes, can be set aside for the Blair County Convention Center and Sports Facilities Authority embarking on its first year of managing the convention center.

At an authority meeting last week, Chairman Richard Karcher said he had been hoping for a 50-50 split.

With the two parties unable to agree, the matter is expected to be addressed by county commissioners in the coming weeks.

Legislation creating the bed tax – along with subsequent amendments – gives county commissioners the power to decide if the county will levy a bed tax.

But the legislation also states that the revenue, minus a portion to cover collection costs, will be forwarded to the county’s designated tourism promotion agency, with two-thirds to be spent on countywide tourism promotion and one-third for “purposes of tourism, convention promotion and tourism development.”

As commissioners study that language and consider their options, we urge them to review the history of the tax and the role prior commissioners played in the levy and distribution.

The tax was introduced in Blair County in October 1997 as a way to generate money to promote tourism.

Initially levied at 1 percent, commissioners agreed in April 1999 to increase the tax to 1.5 percent.

At that time, the Allegheny Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau wanted to hire a marketing and sales representative who would work on attracting convention, meeting and group business to the convention center that would soon be under construction.

The additional revenue from a higher tax could cover the cost, the commissioners were told.

In April 2001, a month before the convention center opened, commissioners voted – again at the request of the Allegheny Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau – to double the bed tax rate from 1.5 percent to 3 percent, starting in July of that year, so the additional revenue could cover debt incurred to build the convention center.

While the bureau managed the convention center, it took on the responsibility of speaking up on behalf of the center and of making sure enough money was available to operate the facility.

While the bureau typically held much of the center’s financial information close to its vest, it never asked commissioners for general fund tax revenue to support the facility.

Now that Explore Altoona has decided to end it role as manager, commissioners need to work with the authority to see that enough bed tax money is designated for the convention center’s operations.

If that goal isn’t met, look for convention center to become a line item in the county’s budget.