“Privatization” is one of those words that, depending on your political persuasion, elicits a strong reaction either for or against.
For conservatives, privatization represents an opportunity to cut through the bloat of government and benefit from the competition of the open market.
For liberals, privatization represents the handing over of the public trust to moneyed interests that answer, not to citizens, but to stockholders.
It’s hard to imagine what middle ground exists between these two extreme positions. But it is just such a middle ground we encourage Otsego County to seek as it mulls the future of its tourism department.
The agency’s director, Deb Taylor, has proposed setting up a private, nonprofit agency to handle tourism for the county, including the distribution of bed-tax funds.
The nonprofit would be governed by a board of directors, which would direct two full-time employees.
Asked why the county would want to divest itself of this office, Rep. Betty Anne Schwerd said, “The goal here is to get a better return on our investment.” Schwerd conceded that she and her fellow board members don’t necessarily have a great deal of expertise and knowledge about how best to spend bed-tax dollars to help tourism throughout the county.
We appreciate Schwerd’s candor, and certainly we applaud the board for seeking ways to improve the bang for taxpayer buck and the efforts to promote the county.
But the model proposed does raise a few concerns. It’s not clear, in the model Schwerd and Taylor described, of how much oversight the county would have over this nonprofit. Too much would mean the county would essentially be back where it started; too little would mean few checks and balances governing the distribution of public money.
History tells us that the allocation of bed-tax funds is a hotly contested issue among the local business community. So handing over tax dollars to a group of private citizens to do with as it chooses seems like an invitation for conflicts of interest to develop.
That being said, it makes a great deal of sense for the county to seek the input of stakeholders in the business community.
We would encourage the county to consider creating an uber-board of sorts that would bring leaders from the business community together with county government to inform the tourism program.
We envision an entity that could include representatives from chambers of commerce and organizations such as Main Street Oneonta, as well as from county government. It would be a United Nations of Tourism, Otsego County style.
As taxpayers who happen to like Otsego County quite a bit, we want the same thing Schwerd does: a good return on our investment. We hope the county proceeds thoughtfully on this polarizing issue.