County Commission Sets Up Committee To Study How To Resolve Funding Questions
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Original intent is battling current commitments in a matter the Greene County Commission failed to resolve on Monday.
The commission met to address several agenda items, among them a resolution to budget all the county's revenue from the hotel/motel tax's allocation for "performing arts" to the Niswonger Performing Arts Center (NPAC).
As the proposal stood on Monday, this would have meant the county would stop making several annual contributions, including:
* $7,500 to the Dickson-Williams Historical Association;
* $7,350 to the Nathanael Greene Museum; and
* $1,960 to the Central Ballet Theatre.
An annual $30,650 education bond payment to the county's Education Debt Service Fund would continue through the remainder of the time the county has committed these payments.
Those payments are for the county's portion of the band rooms at North Greene and South Greene high schools, which were made possible through a "Spotlight on Learning" partnership with the Niswonger Foundation.
Mayor Alan Broyles said Monday that the Budget & Finance Committee endorsed the resolution calling for NPAC to receive all the funds after hearing from those who were on the commission at the time, as well as from Scott Niswonger, that the original intent of the private act creating the hotel/motel tax was for the "performing arts" portion of the tax to go to NPAC.
However, the commission pulled the resolution from the agenda at the start of the meeting in order to further study the issue in an ad hoc committee. Nonetheless, there was much discussion related to the issue later in the meeting.
Currently, NPAC receives $10,000 each year from the hotel/motel tax.
The tax is a 7 percent levy on staying in a hotel or motel room in Greene County. That tax is split in several ways:
* 3 percent goes to the Greene County Partnership for tourism and economic development;
* 2 percent goes to the county's General Debt Service Fund;
* 1 percent goes to recreational pursuits, including capital improvements and purchase of equipment; and,
* 1 percent goes to promote performing arts.
It is out of the1 percent performing arts portion that the NPAC currently receives its annual $10,000 allocation.
The total amount the county collects from that 1 percent slice is almost $60,000 each year.
Niswonger spoke to the County Commission on Monday and said that, in 2004, then-County Mayor Roger Jones asked him to help raise support for an increase to the hotel/motel tax from owners of other area hotels and motels.
That request came with the promise that the increase would include the portion for NPAC, Niswonger said.
"It's something that I thought was pretty clear for a number of years, but it's something that, the more we talk about it, it seems the less clear it becomes," Niswonger said.
He went on to say that the Nathanael Greene Museum and the Dickson-Williams Historical Association were supposed to receive their portion of the hotel/motel tax from the recreation portion of the tax, which includes in the private act wording concerning the maintenance of buildings.
"In my opinion, we've been taking money for [the Dickson-Williams Mansion and the Nathanael Greene Museum] out of the wrong bucket," he said.
Niswonger further went on to explain the role of NPAC in the community. He said that the center has a $1.3 million budget, of which $700,000 is generated in ticket sales and the remaining $600,000 is from private gifts and philanthropy.
The performing arts portion of the hotel/motel tax, at nearly $60,000 annually, should be contributing about 10 percent of that shortfall, he said.
He also said that NPAC builds its schedule around school performances, which require staffing for 87 additional days in order to cover rehearsals and performances.
The only other local, public funding that NPAC receives is from the Greeneville City School System, which Niswonger said pays for half the utility and janitorial bills, an expense of approximately $75,000.
Niswonger said that he spent $7.5 million building NPAC, then gifted it to the Town of Greeneville.
Several commissioners praised NPAC and Niswonger for his work, apologizing for any misunderstanding.
Commissioners also heard from Earl Fletcher, executive director of the Nathanael Greene Museum, and Wilhelmina Williams, secretary for the Dickson-Williams Historical Association.
Williams is also a member of the NPAC Education Advisory Board and of the National Association of Museums.
Both Fletcher and Williams urged the county to continue funding all the entities which have been receiving some support from the hotel/motel tax revenues.
Fletcher said funding to the Nathanael Greene Museum from the hotel/motel tax is 15 percent of his overall budget.
"We would have to make several cuts, not only to staffing, but in general operation, hours, etc.," he said.
He noted that the museum already will have to go from free admission by donation to a small admission fee as of February 2014.
Williams also urged funding, but spoke in support of all organizations.
"I don't want this to be a fight," she said. "We have such opportunities here. I want you to think of the big picture, especially when it goes to this committee."
Williams concluded by asking that the commission give "with equity, with fairness and proportionately."