By DOTTY NIST
The county commission is scheduled to take up the appointment of a “North Walton County Advisory Committee” to provide recommendations to the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) on certain matters.
Those matters are in connection with a portion of the TDC budget to be used for promotion outside of the Walton/Bay/Okaloosa County area of “countywide events.” These have been described as events taking place in Walton County but outside the TDC’s south-of-the-bay taxing district.
This is not a new idea, since the TDC has engaged in promotion of Walton County events such as Chautauqua and the Christmas Reflections holiday light display in DeFuniak Springs in the past.
What is somewhat new is the systematic designation of a small portion of the TDC’s budget for promotion of countywide events and the appointment of a committee to advise the TDC on the use of these funds.
The current initiative got started with a proposal known as “Local Rallying Cry,” which was presented to the TDC in December.
The proposal stated: “The (TDC) as part of comprehensive efforts to connect with the local community, for the purpose of greater TDC effectiveness, will financially support community happenings in minor increments. Countywide events that wish to appeal to the TDC’s Executive Director or designee may receive small funding amounts for the reimbursement of event marketing placed outside of Walton, Bay and Okaloosa counties. This minor consideration demonstrates the value and need of a united community that together focuses on being the leading tourism brand in the region. Annual total of all reimbursements issued by the TDC in Fiscal Year 2013-14 is not to exceed $15,000.”
The TDC’s annual budget is approximately $18 million.
Since state law closely regulates the expenditure of TDC bed tax revenues, a determination was made to seek an opinion from the state attorney general’s office as to whether the expenditure of these funds for promotion of countywide events occurring outside the taxing district would be acceptable.
In March, TDC Executive Director Jim Bagby presented a copy of the attorney general’s opinion to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). The opinion stated that bed tax funds could be spent for promotion of events held within the county but outside the TDC taxing area. Bagby also told the commissioners that plans were for approximately $30,000 to be designated in the next year’s TDC budget for the promotion of countywide events outside south Walton County.
At that time, there was a suggestion from District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen that a committee of north Walton County representatives be formed to advise the TDC on a regular basis regarding the use of the portion of the budget to be spent for this purpose. This was agreed to by the BCC as a whole.
As a result, at the April 22 BCC meeting at the Walton County Courthouse, Bagby appeared before the commission again to present guidelines for the North Walton County Advisory Committee and to seek the commissioners’ nominations to the new committee. He also suggested a change to the guidelines as submitted, which had specified that membership would consist of one person appointed by the city of DeFuniak Springs, one person appointed by the city of Freeport, and one person appointed by each of the five county commissioners, for a total of seven members.
Bagby suggested the addition of one person appointed by the town of Paxton and another member in order to keep an odd number of committee members, with the ninth member to either be appointed by the Walton County School Board or another county entity.
After discussion, the BCC gave direction for the addition of a person appointed by Paxton and one appointed by the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to committee membership, the guidelines presented by Bagby provided for committee terms to run for two years and for staff liaison for the committee to be the TDC director of sales and special events.
“It is required that all committee members either reside or work in Walton County and have a familiarity with the events and activities routinely occurring north of the Choctawhatchee Bay,” the guidelines specified.
According to the guidelines, the new committee is to meet at least quarterly, with meetings to be publicly noticed and recorded, with minutes taken, and all members are to be subject to Sunshine and public records laws.
DeFuniak Springs resident J.B. Hillard came forward at the April 22 meeting to provide public comment. While emphasizing that he did not oppose the formation of the North Walton County Advisory Committee, Hillard requested a two-week delay in moving forward with the committee because the DeFuniak Springs City Council had not seen information on the committee until the previous week and had not had time to meet and discuss the proposal.
It was also observed that Paxton’s Council had not had the opportunity to meet and discuss the committee and that a council meeting for the town was not scheduled within the next two weeks. However, Bagby stated that Paxton Mayor Hayward Thomas had already agreed to serve as the town’s representative on the committee.
The two-week delay that Hillard had requested was approved unanimously, setting the stage for the item to be placed on the agenda for the May 13 BCC meeting, which is to begin at 4 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Annex.
In 2013, the DeFuniak Springs City Council had discussed the possibility of holding a referendum on the question of whether bed taxes should begin to be collected on short-term accommodations north of the bay and the Walton County TDC should be expanded to a countywide organization. However, since the attorney general’s opinion providing for current TDC bed tax revenues to be used to promote events held north of the bay, the move has been on hold.
By DOTTY NIST