Counties seek flexibility in tourism revenue spending

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Tourists enjoy the views of Utah’s City Creek Center. (Kenna Colton)

A new audit completed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General in Utah shows that tourist visits to the Beehive State are on the rise, but that may not be a good thing for counties that don’t have the means to support all of the tourists that promotions are bringing in.

The audit, released this year, consisted of splitting the counties into categories based on revenue amount brought in by tourism: smaller counties that do not attract as much out-of-state or in-state attention and larger counties that show significant tourist revenue.

The audit confirmed that both types of counties have excess funds from the tourism budgets that could be applied elsewhere. However, current law can sometimes prevent the counties from distributing the money in responsible ways and forces some counties to spend more than is necessary on tourism promotion.

“All eight counties within the audit would like to spend less on promotion for tourism,” said Leah Blevins, audit supervisor of the legislative auditor’s office. “Larger counties, like Washington County, have said that they have more tourists than their infrastructure can currently support.” 

Blevins said these counties have their hands tied on where they can spend the money from the budgets. In one case, Washington County stockpiled $10 million that they felt was not needed to be used towards promoting tourism and used it to pay off debts. There was no backlash.

Davis County did the same thing and stockpiled the excess funds from their promotion budget and applied it toward paying off a bond. This saved Davis County future debt interest.

The Utah tourism audit said an adjustment needs to be made in how the tourism budget is distributed. However, there are some large communication gaps when it came to the reporting the counties’ budgets. The main issue is that counties have no deadlines for reporting their budgets.

Blevins said she believes bringing the Utah Tourism Industry Association as an enforcement agency would ensure that the reports from the counties would be received on time and these large amounts of money could be tracked and mitigated efficiently. 

Kaitlin Eskelson, executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association, expressed a different opinion.

“The deadline is the solution for this, which is feasible immediately,” Eskelson said. “Setting a deadline for county reports is a key point, and I am not sure that the tourism agency should be considered an enforcement agency. We want to see greater collaboration with Utah Tax Commission so that reports can go to both agencies.”

Eskelson said the Utah Tax Commission should be the primary enforcement agency for counties to have heightened accountability for submitting reports. She also stated that when it come to the county budgets, the funds need to be used more responsibly toward issues that matter. The Utah Tourism Industry Association is working with Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, on broader monetary uses that they feel are meaningful for the counties. 

Eskelson said some Utah counties have more tourists than they can handle. A solution to this issue would be to take the money and use it for promotion in seasons that have significantly lower tourism rates.

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