City nixes guest tax increase

By Bryan Richardson

City commissioners said Tuesday that they didn’t support increasing the transient guest tax.

There wasn’t a vote, but their comments essentially put an end to the proposed half-cent increase of the guest tax to increase revenue for the Flint Hills Discovery Center in 2015.

The guest tax is currently at 6 percent, 1 percentage point of which goes to the center. That 1 percent would bring an estimated $204,200 in revenue to the center in 2015.

Instead of raising the tax, commissioners suggested using the projected $77,881 in excess guest tax revenue this year for the Discovery Center.

Kelly Loub, chair of the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) steering committee, said the committee voted 8-2 against the half-cent guest tax increase.

The CVB 2015 budget request also designated that the excess revenue stay with the bureau.

Loub said the steering committee “strongly believes” the money should go to the CVB for the purpose of expanding the marketing of Manhattan.

However, the revenue appears likely to go to the center, which would provide the $20,318 needed to turn the part-time public program coordinator into a full-time position.

Revenue would also go toward making up the difference in the $86,434 operational deficit the center had in 2013 and could possibly face in 2014.

This projection is based on 2014 year-to-date numbers.

In the center’s first full calendar year in 2013 (it opened in April 2012), the revenue estimate was close to the mark. The projected total revenue was $660,400, and the actual revenue was $651,547.

The bigger discrepancy came in the center’s expenses. The projected expenses were $633,700 while the actual expenses totaled $737,981, which led to the $86,434 operational deficit.

Commissioner Rich Jankovich said the commission now has a better idea of what it costs to operate the Discovery Center.

“When we approved the budget for this year, we hadn’t even had a real full year of operation yet,” he said. “We got one in 2013, and now we really know what it costs to run.”

Commissioner Karen McCulloh suggested an additional work session to discuss the center’s finances in greater detail particularly expenses.

“On the plus side, we’re doing exactly what the projected budget said we were going to do (with revenues), but on the expenses, we’re significantly higher,” she said.

Discovery Center Director Fred Goss presented the proposed 2015 budget.

Even with the $77,881 transfer, the center would still have a $19,412 deficit — $848,058 in revenue versus $867,470 in expenses — since the center’s budget includes a full-time public program coordinator.

Mayor Wynn Butler said he’s optimistic the center could make up the $19,412 deficit, but he wants to see additional revenue come in with the full-time position.

“If we add this other position, at the end of the year, the challenge is you’ve got to have the books balanced,” he said. “It’s just that simple. If not, we need to chop something out of the Discovery Center.”

Goss said the center sharing the coordinator with Sunset Zoo has affected both of their abilities to raise revenue.

“I feel very strongly and quite openly that it has affected the ability to generate additional revenue not just from education programs K-12, but also university-level programs and public programs in general,” he said.

Commissioner Usha Reddi said the Discovery Center is still very young.

She said the center has become “almost the face of Manhattan” because of its visibility, so it’s important to help the center through this stage.

“For Sunset Zoo, it seems easy right now, but it’s been there for a few years,” Reddi said. “We’re still subsidizing the pools… We can’t just get rid of things because we have to pay for them as a city just because they’re not money makers.”

Voters passed a quarter-cent quality of life sales tax in 2009 to pay for construction of the zoo’s Nature Exploration Center and City Pool as well as improvements to Northview and CiCo swimming pools.

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