Obscure fee crux of chamber plan


— An obscure, but significant, city measure known as the "vendors fee" remains at the crux of a debate over growth and tourism in Steamboat Springs.

Retaining the much-debated vendors fee is a key component to the resort community's plan to reduce its dependence on city funds for summer marketing.

In the early 1980s, the city rebated 3.3 percent of the sales taxes it collected to the vendors who collected the money. In essence, the vendors fee was a commission for performing the task of collecting revenue on behalf of the city. In 1985, with the mutual understanding of city government and the business community, the vendors fee was repealed so that the money could be diverted to the money to the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association for the purpose of marketing Steamboat in the summer. The economic conditions at the time were very different the real estate market was flat and summer tourism was weak. A one-year agreement was signed formalizing the city's request that the chamber take on responsibility for marketing Steamboat as a summer vacation destination. But that agreement was never formally renewed. Today, members of the business community claim the vendors fee still belongs to them, while city government takes the position that the vendors fee hasn't existed for 15 years, and it is free to do whatever it deems best with the funds.

The chamber of commerce advanced a plan before City Council Sept. 12 that would gradually reduce the city's contribution to summer marketing by $311,000 within five years. However, the plan would preserve an amount that corresponds to a vendors fee that was formally abandoned 15 years ago but has lived on.

The fee was officially repealed in 1985 but has been retained in concept ever since. The vendors fee portion of the city's contribution to marketing amounted to $418,892 this year. Based upon annual growth projections of 4 percent in city sales taxes, it would increase to $530,000 in 2006. The actual number could be more, or it could decline if city sales tax revenues decline.

The chamber's proposal would preserve the contribution that corresponds to the old vendors fee but gradually eliminate a non-equivalent match the city has historically contributed over and above the vendors fee.

"Our intent is to keep a substantial amount of money in marketing," Chamber Executive Vice President Sandy Hall said. "We don't have another way to bring dollars into our community to allow them to circulate, without tourists bringing them in. We have to count on people to do that, not products or extractive industries right now."

The chamber doesn't immediately have new sources of revenue to offset the reduction in city marketing support. However, Evans said it is considering several ways to rein in current expenditures.

Phasing out the city match, while retaining the old vendors fee equivalent, would reduce the city's contribution from the combined $730,557 in 1999 to $530,032 in 2006.

The chamber is also asking City Council to give separate consideration to its request that it contribute $90,000 to the chamber's transportation support fund. Those monies go primarily to support the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.'s winter airline program into Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

For next year, the chamber is proposing to reduce the portion of the marketing money it attaches to a "city match" by $83,178. However, the total reduction would be just more than $53,500 because vendors fees are predicted to grow 4 percent to $435,648.

The city's funding of tourism was a hot issue throughout 1999, and the buzz continued into the first half of 2000 as an informal group of residents appeared at City Council and neighborhood meetings to call for an end to the practice. They reasoned, in part, that tourism marketing spurs growth in the Yampa Valley by exposing an ever-increasing number of people to its charms. They also contend that the city's participation in funding tourism growth creates too cozy a relationship between government and the business community.

Bob Enever, one of the most outspoken critics of the city's funding of marketing, said Thursday he doesn't feel the chamber's proposal goes far enough.

"I think they should be eliminating the whole thing," Enever said. "The vendors fee does not exist, because council repealed it in 1985. They should make sure the vendors fee remains on the table."

Enever said it was he who called at least a temporary halt to a series of meetings that had begun to bring spokespersons on both sides of the issue to the table.

Tom Hopp, a local bank president, had conducted two meetings involving Enever and college teacher John Spezia representing opposition to city marketing funding. The other point of view was represented by Sandy Evans Hall, and Ed MacArthur, president of the chamber's board of directors.

Enever said he still has an open mind to resuming the meetings in the future. However, he believes pending the outcome of Amendment 24 in the November election, which is intended to slow the rate of growth statewide, he believes the context of the local discussions could change dramatically.

Hopp said he acted as a private resident in bringing together the two sides of the debate and hoped the meetings would begin to define problems the community is experiencing related to growth.

"It was out of frustration really," Hopp said. "Essentially my concern is that we haven't identified what the issues are, what the causes are and what our long-term plan is for the community. What we need is a focus point that demonstrates leadership and vision."

Hopp said he thinks the debate over growth has been a divisive factor in the community, but that if the two camps began talking about things they already agree on, they would find they have more in common than they currently know.

City Councilman Jim Engelken previously proposed trimming city support of summer marketing over a two-year time span instead of five. He believes that tourism and growth are not paying their way in the community.

County Councilwoman Kathy Connell, who is in the resort property management business, pointed out that the city depends heavily on sales tax for its operating budget. The city has no property tax.

"We need to deal with this now," Connell said. "The city has no permanent source of income to help sales tax in the budget. We're living off the fat of the pig. Well, the pig is only so big."

City Council is expected to consider the chamber's proposal in more formal terms during its annual budget hearing in October.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net


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