Can Room Tax Support Our State Parks?

At its meeting on Feb. 16, the Tourism Zone Commission uncharacteristically discussed a politically charged topic in between the standard occupancy rate updates and report from the Door County Visitor Bureau. Commission Administrator Kim Roberts passed out a packet of news articles outlining the decreasing funding for Wisconsin state parks and the increasing complaints about maintenance and facilities from visitors.

The commission, charged with the collection of room tax dollars that ultimately serve as tourism promotion, considered its potential role in supporting one of the greatest tourist assets the county has to offer.

“So many people come to Door County for our state parks,” said Roberts. “There’s this fear that the parks are more popular than ever but people are being priced out of them and they’re in decline as far as maintenance.”

State park funding is quickly disappearing in Wisconsin, favoring a self-sustaining model that has resulted in increased fees to cover the complete removal of general purpose revenue from the coffers of the state park system. The expected $1.4 million deficit that resulted from budget cuts in 2015 is central to an ongoing conversation in Madison about potential revenue streams within the state parks.

The lack of funding results in reduced maintenance at the state parks, fewer employees, and delayed projects. Some commissioners worry that this decline and increased cost to visit the parks will result in a decline of tourists to the area.

But the commission only supports marketing of the county through the Door County Visitor Bureau (DCVB). While 30 percent of room tax dollars go back to the individual municipalities to use however they please, the commission can’t tell the municipalities to support state parks.

Dick Skare, commissioner and chair of the Gibraltar Town Board, said he spoke with Representative Joel Kitchens about the possibility of adding room tax to campgrounds in state parks and funneling those dollars back to the state park in which they came from.

“From the Town of Gibraltar aspect, where we are neighbors with the park, we have law enforcement people and fire department and EMRs that go in there and do all these things now that we’ve not necessarily done before so we have local expenses that we incur,” said Skare.

As the state law reads now, the commission cannot levy a room tax on tent or RV sites in both state parks and private campgrounds.

“My understanding of the statute is that room taxes can only be charged against things like if you have a cabin at a campground but not against tent sites, not against camper sites,” said Josh VanLieshout, chair of the Tourism Zone Commission and Sturgeon Bay City Administrator.

VanLieshout added that the commission has recognized the value of marketing and does not intend to shuttle funds away from the DCVB and toward state parks.

But whether the commission can use funds to support state parks lies in a gray area of the state statute. The 30 percent a municipality keeps can be used however that local government wants, tourism related or not.

State law says the remaining 70 percent can be used for “tourism promotion and tourism development,” which includes, “tangible municipal development” as long as that development is targeted at transient visitors and is likely to encourage them to spend the night.

“Room tax can be used to support tourism-related infrastructure,” said VanLieshout. “Is that state parks? County parks? Is it convention centers? That’s the big question.”

That question hasn’t been challenged yet, making the official interpretation of the law unclear.

But even if the commission cannot or will not spend some of its funds directly on tourism development, such as fiscal support of state parks, the 30 percent that municipalities can keep has no restrictions.

Skare said Gibraltar uses a portion of its 30 percent to fund the Fish Creek Civic Association, which promotes tourism and events within Fish Creek, and the rest goes into the general fund for no specified purpose. In a phone call, Skare said that Gibraltar has not discussed using a portion of its room tax dollars to support the neighboring Peninsula State Park.

At the Feb. 16 meeting, Skare said changes to the room tax statute could be explored at the Door/Kewaunee Legislative Days in April.

Clarification, March 23, 2017: 

Due to several letters the Pulse has received regarding this story on the Door County Tourism Zone Commission and a purely speculative discussion members held on using room tax to support state parks, we revisited both the minutes and the audio recording of the meeting to clear up confusion on the issue since it is being used to campaign for office in the Town of Gibraltar.

At the end of the story, the reporter stated that commission Vice Chair Dick Skare, who also chairs the Gibraltar Town Board and is in a fight for that office in the April 4 election, said changes to the room tax statute could be explored at the Door/Kewaunee Legislative Days next month.

What Skare really said is that he would not be a fan of using room taxes for state parks, but that reimbursing townships for expenses incurred by townships providing services to state parks should be discussed with legislators during Door/Kewaunee Legislative Days.

The meeting minutes indicate this was Skare’s introduction to the topic of using room taxes to replace diminished state funding for state parks. The minutes also show that the subject was brought up for discussion only by Door County Tourism Zone Commission Administrator Kim Roberts after the commission had been contacted by state Sen. Robert Cowles about diminished park funding. The allegation made by one letter writer that Skare had prior knowledge of the issue and was bypassing the Gibraltar Town Board on some sort of personal mission to change room tax laws is nothing that could have been inferred from the Pulse story.

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