TOWANDA - The Bradford County commissioners voted Thursday to cease sending the revenue from the county's room tax to the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau.

Instead, beginning on March 8, 2015, the county will spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual room tax revenue on its own.

In a 2-1 decision, the Bradford County commissioners voted to terminate the county's contract with the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau, effective March 8, 2015. The county is required to give the EMVB a year's notification before the termination of the contract goes into effect.

After the contract ends, the county will have full control over how the county's room tax revenue is spent, the Bradford County commissioners said.

By putting the room tax revenue under the county's control, the county will be able to move forward with its plan to spend part of the room tax revenue on publicity aimed at counteracting misconceptions that people in other parts of the state and country have about how the gas industry has affected the county, Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said.

"The view of our county has been distorted terribly," he said. "We have an image that we are going to have to correct."

The commissioners' conference room was packed for Thursday's vote, and a series of people at the meeting urged the commissioners to not go forward with their plan to put the county in charge of spending the room tax revenue.

"You are going to hurt the small businesses" in Bradford County, Jean H. Ruhf, executive director of the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau (EMVB), told the commissioners. "We do so much for them."

When McLinko asked Ruhf whether the shut-off in room tax revenue would prompt the EMVB to cease serving Bradford County businesses that are members of the EMVB, Ruhf replied: "That remains to be seen."

Just under half of the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau's annual budget is funded by Bradford County's room tax, Ruhf said.

Bradford County sends all of its room tax revenue to the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau, most of which is used by the bureau to promote the four-county region it serves, to pay its staff, and other purposes.

However, the EMVB returns 30 percent of Bradford County's room tax revenue to Bradford County to be distributed to various non-profit agencies in the county, such as the Leroy Heritage Museum, Rekindle the Spirit Inc., and Athens Artsfest.

McLinko and Miller said that after the county takes control of how the room tax revenue is spent, it will continue the practice of distributing 30 percent of Bradford County's room tax revenue to non-profit agencies. Under the new arrangement, it is possible that even more room tax revenue will be distributed to non-profit agencies, McLinko said.

When the county takes over the distribution of room tax revenue, some of it will be used to promote economic development in the county, Miller said. Until now, all of the revenue from the Bradford County room tax has been used for tourism promotion.

In addition, under the new arrangement, some of the revenue from the county's room tax will be spent promoting events within the county, such as LeRaysville's Labor Day Celebration, to residents in the county, McLinko has said.

Under the new arrangement, "we (the Bradford County commissioners) will have to set up an entity that will handle how the money (room tax revenue) is spent," Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller has said.

That entity will take direction from the Bradford County commissioners on how it is to spend the money, Miller has said.

Ruhf said that she has concerns about the county's plan to spend part of the room tax revenue to promote economic development.

She said that the way in which room tax revenue is to be spent is spelled out in state law.

"You have to be very careful," she said. Room tax revenue "is to be spent on tourism promotion."

But McLinko said the commissioners have looked into the legal ramifications of the new arrangement.

"We have had this researched by our lawyers completely," McLinko said. "We are fully confident that we are within the law."

In 2012, Bradford County generated $409,578 from its room tax, according to the EMVB.

Robert Spraker, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Shaner Corp., which manages the Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel in Wysox Township, told the commissioners that if they wanted to do publicity to counteract misconceptions about the effects of the gas industry on Bradford County, they should use revenue from the county's impact fee to pay for it.

The amount of money generated by the room tax is a "pittance" compared to the $8 million the county receives annually from the impact fee, he said.

But McLinko said the commissioners did not want to tap money from the impact fee for the project, since there is no guarantee that the impact fee won't end under a new administration in Harrisburg.

Mark Smith cast the dissenting vote on ending the county's contract with the EMVB.

Smith said it is more effective for the county to band together with three other counties to have the EMVB promote them as a region, than to create additional bureaucracy so that the county can promote itself on its own.

Several speakers at Thursday's meeting praised the EMVB's effectiveness in promoting Bradford County.

A common misconception about the county is that the county has become a "wasteland" as a result of gas drilling, Miller has said.

According to McLinko, representatives of a carpenter's union in Albany, N.Y. who came to Bradford County "couldn't believe how beautiful Bradford County is, based on what they had heard."

McLinko said the commissioners will be discussing with local chambers of commerce, economic development officials, and others about exactly how the county's room tax revenue should be spent.

Staff writer James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.

In, Bradford County sent $409,527