Columbia County cuts could limit tourism promotion

November 6, 2018

Columbia County’s decision to strip funding for the Columbia County Economic Development Corp. next year isn’t necessarily permanent, members of the County Board’s Executive Committee said Monday.

But it does mean the county isn’t paying for any tourism-related programs – a cause for concern for one of the county board members who sits on the economic development group’s board of directors.

“Tourism, as I see it, is something that benefits the whole county, and it’s something we might want to consider down the road,” said Supervisor Nancy Long of Lodi.

The economic development entity — governed primarily by representatives of various Columbia County business sectors — is not a county department, but has received 100 percent of its operating money from county coffers since 2013. Most of the money goes for the compensation and activities of the entity’s executive director, Cheryl Fahrner.

For this year’s budget, the organization received $121,070 in county funding. Tourism, also included in the organization’s budget, got $10,000, half the amount requested.

Among the things the tourism funding pays for is an annual booklet listing events, festivals and other tourist-oriented attractions in Columbia County, Long said. The Columbia County Travel Guide is published by Capital Newspapers, the parent company of the Portage Daily Register.

In drafting the county’s 2019 budget, the county Finance Committee voted unanimously to strip funding for the Columbia County Economic Development Corp. this year, citing a budget crunch that will require the county to again dip into the general fund to cover shortfalls in revenue.

The Executive Committee on Monday unanimously affirmed the removal of economic development and tourism money from the 2019 budget in a resolution.

But County Board First Vice Chairman Dan Drew of the town of Pacific, who also is the Finance Committee chairman, said the decision not to fund economic development in 2019 may not be permanent.

“I’m good with that,” he said. “I guess we’re going to withhold funding until there’s a motion to change it. That might never happen.”

Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said the decision not to fund the organization was a budgetary decision, and all Columbia County budgetary decisions are made year to year.

“It doesn’t preclude the county from ever funding economic development again,” he said. “If CCEDC comes to us next year with a plan, they could ask for funding again.”

However, Ruf said, the decision to pull the organization’s county funding — should that decision be upheld when the county board adopts the 2019 budget Nov. 13 — will mean the organization will have to vacate its offices on the second floor of the county’s Administration Building at 112 E. Edgewater St.

The offices will have to be vacated as of Jan. 1, Ruf said.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage said he’s received calls from tourism-related organizations asking about their funding for the coming year. Some of them get county money from other departments, such as the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County, he said.

Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville said he does not see local tourism or business organizations stepping up to pick up the slack left by the loss of county funding.

They might step up, Long said, if they realize that the county’s decision could affect efforts to boost tourism.

After the Finance Committee made its decision, Fahrner said she already has plans to keep the economic development organization going for at least one year with money from other sources.

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