Two Greenbrier Valley Airport Authority members with ties to Gov. Jim Justice’s Greenbrier resort asked the Ethics Commission on Thursday if it would be permissible for them to vote on a proposal to create an airport Convention and Visitors Bureau — something Justice adamantly opposes over its potential to raise hotel occupancy tax rates in the county.
Proposed creation of an airport Convention and Visitors Bureau has been a source of controversy in the county for more than a year, primarily over plans for the CVB to use revenue from the increased hotel occupancy taxes to fund minimum revenue guarantees to entice airlines to serve the airport.
Minimum revenue guarantees allow smaller airports to attract air service by guaranteeing to pay airlines a break-even amount on flights where the passenger load is low.
In one request for an advisory opinion, an airport authority member asked if he could continue his employment with The Greenbrier resort, which uses the airport’s services, and whether he could vote on the proposal to create the airport CVB. The person fitting that description would be authority member Greg Furlong, vice president of sales and event services at The Greenbrier, who was appointed to the authority last October.
The other requestor, believed to be Authority Chairwoman Deborah Phillips, asked if she could vote on matters affecting her husband’s employer, including voting on creation of the CVB, which she noted, “may increase hotel occupancy taxes.” Phillips’ husband is a seasonal employee at The Greenbrier.
(The only other woman on the Authority is County Commissioner Tammy Shifflet-Tincher, whose husband is a high school teacher and coach.)
Phillips’ request also noted that another of Justice’s companies leases a hangar at the airport, although she indicated she is uncertain if The Greenbrier uses the hangar.
Thursday’s requests mark the latest ethical entanglements for Justice and The Greenbrier, which the governor owns but has not placed in a blind trust.
In a news conference in April, Justice confirmed reports published by the West Virginia Daily News and other outlets that he had met privately with Greenbrier County commissioners over the issue, a meeting where he made clear his opposition to raising the hotel occupancy tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.
“An additional bed tax is layering something on The Greenbrier that I don’t know if The Greenbrier can withstand,” Justice said at the news conference, while denying reports that he had threatened to close the resort in the offseason if the tax were raised.
Attending Thursday’s Ethics Commission meeting was Stephan Snyder, who was fired without explanation as airport manager in June.
Snyder, who advocated for the CVB, said his firing was politically motivated and he has since filed Freedom of Information Act requests for several documents pertaining to his dismissal, including copies of all correspondence between Greenbrier County commissioners and “any employee, owner or member of the Greenbrier Resort, the Greenbrier Sporting Club and Glade Springs Resort” regarding airport operations.
Ethics commissioners approved without discussion advisory opinions concluding that Furlong and Phillips may vote on whether to create an airport CVB, finding that The Greenbrier’s financial interest in the Airport Authority’s potential vote is “too speculative” to prohibit them from voting.
The advisory opinions also noted that ultimate authority to increase the hotel occupancy tax rests with the County Commission, and the creation of the airport CVB, in itself, “would not require the county commission to raise the occupancy tax rate.”
However, failure to increase the tax rate would result in the commission, by law, having to split occupancy tax revenue between the airport CVB and the existing Greenbrier Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The advisory opinion also concluded that nothing in the Ethics Act prohibits Furlong’s employment by The Greenbrier “merely because it uses or benefits from the public services provided by the Authority.”
However, the opinion noted that he should recuse himself from voting on matters in which The Greenbrier has a direct financial interest.
Identities of persons requesting ethics advisory opinions are confidential. However, the particulars of Thursday’s requests left little doubt about the requestors’ identities. That included references to employment with “a large hotel in the region” that “is a tourist attraction in the state.”
News coverage of Authority meetings also had cited the Authority members’ intention to submit requests for advisory opinions to the Ethics Commission.