State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, wants Lycoming County's hotel tax increased and greater regulation on how those funds are spent in the community.
The legislator told a crowd of about 100 people Thursday night at the Old Lycoming Township Volunteer Fire Co. social hall that a hotel tax increase could help pay for services such as public safety or transit needs. At the same time, Mirabito questioned Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce and Lycoming County Visitors Bureau officials how they now spend proceeds of the tax and how transparent their books are.
The visitors bureau is an affiliate of the chamber and operates under its own committee and budget, according to Jason Fink, bureau executive director and chamber vice president.
Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Vince Matteo, left, tries to answer a question from state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, Thursday during a Town Hall Meeting at the Old Lycoming Township Fire Hall.
Mirabito said money to pay for services simply is hard to find these days.
"It seems increasingly clear to me as an elected official that federal funding is greatly reduced," he said.
One option, according to Mirabito, is to tap into the county's hotel tax that has brought in almost $6 million since 2000.
Of that money, 10 percent goes to the county, while other portions are used for tourism marketing, a local tourism grants program and administrative costs.
"Some people say, 'Rick, what business is this of yours?' " said Mirabito.
He said the tax increase would be paid by those from outside the area without burdening the local tax base.
"We have communities that have pressing needs," he said. "The beautiful thing is this is not political. It's not Democrat or Republican."
However, Mirabito told the town hall meeting crowd that he became more interested about the chamber's and visitors bureau's activities in 2009 when constituents told him they could not place marketing materials inside the bureau's visitor center at 210 William St. because they were not a chamber member.
He said preventing non-chamber organizations access to the hotel tax-supported vistors center creates an unfair advantage for existing members.
"We create a monopoly using state money," he said.
Fink responded, "we're a membership organization."
Mirabito also claimed that funds being used by the bureau and chamber may not be properly accounted for. Since 2000, Mirabito said $5.2 million of hotel tax money has been directed to the chamber, while about $584,000 - the county's 10 percent - has been allocated.
In addition, Mirabito said he hasn't gotten specific answers about how much is paid to visitors bureau employees. Fink is designated as a part-time director who oversees a full-time tourism coordinator and several part-time visitors center employees.
"One of the things we're trying to figure out is where all the money is going," Mirabito said. "You may love me or hate me, but you have an obligation to know how much I make.
"I'm trying to be fair," he added. "This isn't about me. This is about the people in the community who have questions."
Some of the questions revolve around how much the chamber gave to an outdoor ice skating facility at Bowman Field and a $500,000 fund to help develop a conference center.
Fink said the chamber did give $63,000 to support the community ice rink at the baseball stadium after being asked by the city to do so. According to Fink, $50,000 was paid to Rink Specialists, the company that installed the ice rink equipment, and $13,000 was for a marketing package with the defunct Williamsport Outlaws minor league professional hockey team.
He said it's not uncommon for the chamber to support community projects like that, and pointed to financial backing under way to market local museums.
The $500,000 conference center fund, which was built up over the past several years with hotel tax proceeds, is being paid back to the chamber with interest because plans to build it will not take place this year, according to Vincent J. Matteo, chamber president and CEO.
Mirabito called for chamber and visitors bureau employees to be subject to state ethics disclosures, which detail gifts of $250 or more from individuals. Elected officials are subject to the disclosure, but not private employees at places such as chambers of commerce or nonprofit organizations.
Former Lycoming County Commissioner Richard Nassberg went so far as to say that the state's auditor general should be called in to take a look at the chamber's and visitors bureau's financial records. He said any use of taxpayer funds should be open to the public, especially since county commissioners have designated the visitor's bureau as the official tourist promotion agency.
"You can't allow the simple perception of impropriety," he said.
Asked by one man in attendance if Mirabito met before personally with chamber or visitors bureau board members about his concerns, Mirabito said, "I don't respond to a meeting like a lap dog."
Matteo said Mirabito has an "agenda."
He said the chamber's and visitors bureau's books are audited yearly and regular updates with county commissioners are held.
"He wants to take the TPA away from the chamber so he can control the money," he said.