BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Greene County's government is considering paying the Niswonger Performing Arts Center (NPAC) nearly $60,000 annually in future years from the county hotel/motel tax: a step which would mean that other local organizations may lose some county government funds.
Currently, the center receives $10,000 each year from this county tax.
The hotel/motel 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 that that last 1 percent portion that the NPAC currently receives its annual $10,000 allocation.
However, the total amount the county collects from that 1 percent slice is almost $60,000 each year, the remainder of which is divided up to support the following:
* approximately $30,650 annually in education bond payments to the county's Education Debt Service Fund 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.
* a $7,500 annual contribution to the Dickson-Williams Historical Mansion;
* a $7,350 annual contribution to the Nathanael Greene Museum; and,
* a $1,960 annual contribution to the Central Ballet Theatre.
The Greene County Budget & Finance Committee recently proposed that, rather than dividing up these funds, the county should rewrite the private act to specify that all of that 1 percent should go to "the performing arts center" rather than just "to performing arts."
"It is thought that when this hotel/motel tax was implemented several years back [in 2004], it was to go to help fund the performing arts center here," County Mayor Alan Broyles said in a telephone interview about the change. "But somehow, it just wasn't put into the private act like that."
Scott Niswonger confirmed during a recent caucus meeting that this was his understanding back in 2004, when the increase to the hotel/motel tax from 3 percent for tourism and economic development to 7 percent for a variety of uses was under discussion.
"That was the discussion that I had with the county mayor [Roger Jones] at the time," Niswonger said.
He explained that the commission at that time included the 1 percent to "the performing arts" because the NPAC was then under construction. It opened at the end of 2004.
"The word 'center' did not make it into the legislative act," Niswonger said.
When the Budget & Finance Committee members proposed during their last meeting to change the private act to reflect this wording, there was no discussion of how this would affect the band room payments or the other entities receiving funding from this portion of the tax.
Broyles said in the follow-up interview that the change would not occur until July 1, 2014, the start of the new fiscal year, because most payments have already gone out for this year.
Moreover, he said that the full 1 percent could not go to the NPAC for at least three more years.
"We can't do it all because part of it's obligated to the band rooms," he said. "Not all the money can actually be [routed to the NPAC] until these notes are paid off."
Although not discussed at the committee meeting, he said that this is a "given" since the money is already obligated.
"The only things that [the proposed change] has taken out of this fund for the performing arts is the Central Ballet Theatre, Nathanael Greene Museum and Dickson-Williams Mansion," he added.
"I can't say what the commission will do. If they want to fund the others somehow, I can't speak for them. But what this [proposed change] will do, in essence, is cut [these entities] out."
The County Commission will consider the change Monday.
The reaction to the proposed change was varied.
The Dickson-Williams Historical Association, Inc. is a non-profit organization. The association, which leases the property from the Greene County government, has restored the building and grounds and continues to maintain them.
The association released a statement that, in part, said the following:
"The loss of the county funds would financially hurt our efforts.
"Prior to 2004 the county's greatly-appreciated contribution to our efforts came from the general fund. After 2004 that contribution was reduced drastically and comes from the hotel/motel tax.
"We want the hotel/motel tax to continue and be used to enhance three of the county-city public tourist endeavors: the Nathaniel Greene Museum, NPAC and the Dickson-Williams Mansion.
"The work done by the Dickson-Williams Mansion and other county museums and the performing arts center provide a significant industry to our community. The provision of Greene County tax funds to the mansion is a financially sound investment that should be continued."
Earl Fletcher, director of the Nathanael Greene Museum, said that a total loss of this funding would have a "tremendous adverse effect" on the museum.
He said that the funding supports the museum's operational costs and totals 12-15 percent of the museum's total budget.
"It's going to affect the staff, everything," Fletcher said.
The hotel/motel tax funds have also supported annual ballets at the Central Ballet Theatre.
Director Lori Ann Sparks issued the following statement:
"Central Ballet Theatre, Inc. is very grateful for all funding we have received for our ballets from the Greene County Commission via the hotel/motel tax. We will continue to strive for excellence in our performances.
"CBT understands and supports funding of the NPAC since the performing arts center is a wonderful addition and adds so much to the community of Greeneville."