Debates on lodging tax distributions at San Juan County Council

San Juan County Councilmen are questioning the purpose of a longtime local fund to attract tourists to the islands.

“I’m a little concerned about funding annual operating expenses for nine organizations out of the hundreds of organizations that do good work out in the county,” said County Councilman Bill Watson at the Monday, Nov. 13 council meeting.

The lodging tax funds awarded for 2018 totaled $1,116,299 and supports facilities that promote tourism, like historic museums, and promotions that attract tourists to events, like festivals. The funds can cover operating expenses, noted Watson, but should be seed money, not an annual allocation. He said the operating expenses covered by the funds in 2018 equaled $637,000.

However, representatives from organizations who said they meet the county’s requirements for the funds, disagree — especially when there is roughly $300,000 more available than originally anticipated.

“[The Friday Harbor Film Festival staff] are doing their job of bringing people to the island,” said Kirsten Daniel, an event volunteer. “I just think we need the full amount of our request and I don’t understand the reason for not giving it.”

Lodging tax funds will support 32 of the 37 applicants, as decided by the council on Nov. 13.

Based on recommendations from the San Juan County Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, or LTAC, the film festival didn’t receive the representatives’ full requested and Friends of the San Juan members didn’t receive any for a local maritime tourism project. Five representatives of the film festival spoke during the public comment section of the Nov. 13 meeting and one from Friends of the San Juans, which is a local environmental nonprofit.

Stephanie Buffum, executive director of the Friends of the San Juans, said the application process lacked distinct assessment criteria, like a scoring sheet, which left her unclear as to why she was not rewarded any of her requested $25,000 in her first year of funding.

“I did not see, in this process, a clear evaluation,” she said.

Council Chairman Rick Hughes, who also heads LTAC, said decisions were made during thorough conversations after roughly 25 hours of listening to applicants’ presentations, totaling 100 hours over the entire process.

“There is no conspiracy here,” Hughes told the Journal.

However, the FHFF representatives said a similar event’s members received their full requested amount, unlike them. Orcas Island Film Festival members were awarded the total amount, while Friday Harbor members received $7,000. FHFF staff requested $12,000, or about 10 percent of the project’s total budget, while OIFF requested $20,000, or about 18 percent of the event’s total budget. FHFF members were originally slated to receive $5,000 but were awarded an additional $2,000 at the meeting.

Hughes explained that projects that weren’t funded at their requested amounts did not appear to be as sustainable as others. He added that funds are meant to be startup money for an event’s first three years, and FHFF is receiving funds for a fourth year.

FHFF staff said they have never seen that time limitation on applications.

Susan Key, a FHFF volunteer, said the event is a magnet for tourism, which is the mission of the lodging tax grant program. Roughly 46 percent of 2017’s attendees, or 598 individuals, reside outside the county, she said. Advertising for the event on ferry systems outside the San Juans advertises the island to a regional audience, she added.

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue, lodging tax funds are collected through a state tax on revenue from local lodging facilities, where consumers stay for less than 30 consecutive days, like hotels and vacation rentals. The county receives a portion of the tax revenue and county organizations apply, annually, to receive a portion of it.

Some organizations applied for multiple projects and the following additional organizations were funded: Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island’s chamber of commerces received a total of $150,115; Deer Harbor Plan Review Committee received $50,000; Island Stage Left received $5,530; Kwiaht received $2,900; San Juan County Land Bank received $120,164; Long Live the Kings Glenwood Springs Hatchery received $10,000; Lopez Center for the Arts received $24,000; Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce received an additional $4,475; Lopez Island Grange received $13,445; Lopez Island Historical Society received $15,600; Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State received $3,500; historic museums on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan received a total of $99,000; Orcas Island Lit Fest received $10,000; Orcas Jazz Festival received $5,000; San Juan County Parks and Fair received $291,350; Patos Island received $10,000; San Juan County Public Works received $220,000; San Juan Island’s Conservation District received $5,000; San Juan Island Farmers market received $2,760; San Juan Island Agricultural Guild received $21,850; San Juan Island Historical Museum received an additional $12,000; San Juan Summer Arts Festival received $2,500; theaters on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan received a total of $105,000; Orcas Center received an additional $20,000; and San Juan Community Theatre received an additional $25,000.

In addition to the Friends of the San Juans, the following organizations’ projects were also not funded: San Juan County Park and Fair, Friday Harbor’s Animal Protection Society, Orcas Center, San Juan Island Conservation District, and San Juan Islands Museum of Art.

For additional information on LTAC, visit