Some county legislators do not believe funneling more than $7 million annually toward Albany’s convention center and civic center is the best use of its hotel occupancy tax revenue.
The Albany County Legislature on Monday, May 12, voted 27-11 to continue the practice of handing over hotel and motel occupancy tax funds toward the proposed city convention center. The county’s adopted 2014 budget includes $7.64 million of revenue from the tax. Some legislators argued the funds could be better spent on programs or issues benefiting municipalities throughout the county, with others proposing to change course after the convention center is built.
Legislator Timothy Nichols, D-Latham, was first to speak against the distribution of funds and voted against it.
“In the past, I’ve supported keeping the 6 percent hotel tax because I support, overall, the concept of the convention center,” Nichols said.
This year’s adopted budget allocated nearly $5.1 million to the civic center’s debt service from the hotel tax revenue, which is around 65 percent. The remaining $2.54 million is evenly split with the Albany Convention Center Authority toward building the new convention center and the Albany County Convention & Visitors Bureau, according to county spokeswoman Mary Rozak.
Nichols proposed using a portion of excess funds allocated to paying the county’s civic center debt service, commonly known as Times Union Center, to support non-profit, cultural and historical organizations countywide.
“All of which are in critical need of support, some even in desperate need of our support,” Nichols said. “A benefit that would benefit all of our towns, cities and villages.”
Only two Democratic legislators joined Nichols in opposition — Charles Dawson, of Glenmont, and Christopher Higgins, of Albany. Patrice Lockart, of Colonie, was the only Republican in attendance voting in support of the resolution.
Higgins, who supports the smaller convention center project, echoed Nichols’ call to distribute money to other initiatives, such as creating a county parks system.
“The whole idea of the (hotel) tax is to spur tourism,” Higgins said.
Nichols pointed to the Shaker Heritage site in the Town of Colonie as one worthy funding opportunity.
“It is a site we ought to take a little more seriously than we do in the county because we don’t,” he said. “It’s a very important site, and it has been neglected and unfunded for decades.”
Legislator Gary Domalewicz, D-Albany, did not support changing fund distribution, but once civic center construction is completed he “didn’t see any reason” to continue funding it.
“There is a lot of things that we can do,” Domalewicz said. “I would like to see more go into economic development with this extra money because it’s only going to go up. The convention center is going to bring more people in.”
Legislator Peter Crouse, R-Loudonville, suggested the tax be reduced to lure more visitors since excess funds are projected.
Nichols said some legislators said the formula could not be changed, because “no one will let us do it.” He said the bill was introduced unchanged to “not complicate matters.”
He contended the organizations receiving funds are in the city, but “most” of the hotels are in the suburbs.
“We have the hotels. We’re bringing the revenue in,” Nichols said. Organizations countywide “should benefit” from the tax, he said.
“There should be more benefactors of this revenue than just three entities that never seem to get enough,” he said. “I am very troubled by this, and I am very discouraged. … I question whether or not all these entities that are getting the revenue need it, but my proposal won’t take a dime.”
Majority Leader Frank Commisso balked at changing the formula and pointed to the civic center needing renovations and a parking garage needing improvements.
“We are going to need funds to handle the reoccurring debt at the civic center. It can’t keep going in the direction we’ve been going,” Commisso said. “We haven’t put a dime into it.”
State lawmakers still have to approve the tax before the end of the legislative calendar closes on June 19, but such proposals typically aren’t contentious.
Commisso said the legislature should not “play games” with the resolution and approve it. Going forward, he said, legislators should discuss the formula early on and not a month before the deadline.
“I would not take any chances,” he said. “I think it’s important to move forward.”
Nichols contended there is still time to revise how funds are distributed before the state legislature must approve the tax authority request.
“Passing this tonight means we are shutting the door on any significant change, at least with the formula,” Nichols said. “Again, we are closing the doors on any new ideas or new initiatives.”