Campbell County Lodging Tax Board votes to keep geofencing contract
April 27, 2023
GILLETTE - The Campbell County Joint Powers Lodging Tax Board is continuing with its contract with Zartico, a company that compiles anonymized geolocation and credit card data.
A group of county residents has raised concerns about invasion of privacy and constitutionality since early April, when the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau told commissioners it would be using a geofencing technology to track spending and activity habits during the National High School Finals Rodeo.
The board held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the contract. Its members voted 5-1 to continue the contract.
More than a dozen people were in attendance at the meeting, including a couple of county commissioners, both of whom gave their support to the board.
"Thank you for doing the job you do," said Commissioner Kelley McCreery. "As a citizen of Campbell County, I agree with your decision. I don't think it's unconstitutional to do what you're doing."
Commissioner Del Shelstad had initially come out against the lodging tax board using Zartico. At a commission meeting in early April, he said he was "100% against data tracking."
At that point, he didn't know much about it. But after doing more research and attending the lodging tax board meeting last week, he's changed his mind.
He recognized the "tough situation" the board was in.
"You sit there and you're being attacked, but you're not the enemy," he told the board.
The board is just doing what the commissioners and city council have asked it to do, Shelstad said. For years, people have wondered about the economic impact that tourism and events have on the community.
"It's really hard to give the commissioners and the city a report of return on investment or a measurable marketing tool," Besel said, adding that Zartico will give just that.
It will help local governments make "data-driven decisions," said Jessica Seders, executive director of the visitors center.
The city and the county have invested significant time and money into the International Pathfinders Camporee, which is coming to town in August 2024. Camporee representatives have said the event will bring $25 million in economic impact to Campbell County.
"They very well could be accurate, they could be low, as far as we know," Shelstad said. "I don't know that we've ever had real numbers. This gets us closer to those real numbers."
Additionally, the city and the county will have to decide whether they want to build an indoor rodeo arena for the NHSFR. Those "real numbers" will come in handy when deciding whether the multimillion dollar facility is worth it, Shelstad added.
"If it helps us be fiscally responsible with the taxpayers' money, I think we have to be in favor of that," he said.
The Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau is paying Zartico to compile data that's already being collected to get an idea of people's travel and spending habits, especially during big events like the National High School Finals Rodeo this summer.
The visitors center is using $31,000 out of the $131,000 it received this biennium from the Wyoming Office of Tourism's Destination Development Program, which was designed to help communities develop and prepare for their visitors. The program is funded through the state lodging tax.
The geofencing technology already has been implemented, and the visitors center is getting spending data in several categories, such as restaurants, hotels and retail.
Zartico gets geolocation data from Near, which covers 1.6 billion unique user IDs in 44 countries. Zartico gets credit card data from another company.
Both sets of data are anonymized, and the data already are being collected because people opt in through agreements with their banks, cellphone providers and mobile apps. Zartico only sees about 5% of all devices.
If Zartico had been collecting personal data, "100% we would not have considered them," Besel said.
Shelstad said that collecting "actual personal information" is the one thing that would have convinced him to oppose Zartico.
He also commended the board for not trying to hide this.
"The lodging tax board went public on this, they didn't try to hide it, and they don't get credit for that," he said.
Besel handles the marketing and advertising for the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport. She said that knowing which states have the most visitors to Gillette is valuable.
"I'm spending taxpayer dollars, I need to be prudent with what I'm doing," she said. "I need to advertise where the dollars are best spent."
Some people brought up the fact that businesses have to present sales tax receipts to the state every month. They viewed this as a less intrusive way of getting spending data.
Shelstad said he thought this was an option at first, until he tried it himself. He said he reached out to three local restaurants and three local hotels and asked them whether they'd give this information voluntarily, and only one out of the six would.
Both Seders and Besel said it means a lot to have the backing of the commissioners.
"That always makes our work easier, when we can say that we're listening to our entities that do appoint our board members," Seders said.
Former representative Bill Fortner, who has come out strongly against this, said this is a class action lawsuit waiting to happen.
"Without a doubt, it's not going to be anything pretty, I can guarantee that," he said Wednesday after the meeting.
He said it violates the Fourth Amendment because data collection is an "unlawful search and seizure," and that "somewhere, some place, somebody's making a bunch of money off of this."
While it's inconvenient, people who don't want to be tracked can turn off the location services on their phones and pay with cash, Shelstad said.
"You shut your phone off, that doesn't do nothing," Fortner said. "You've got to take your battery out."
The board has touted this as a tool for economic development. Fortner said this argument is just a slippery slope, and that making decisions based on money isn't always the best way to go.
"Prostitutes and drug dealers need money too, so where do you draw the line?" he asked.
Besel said in order for Campbell County to expand, its officials need the best information possible to make decisions moving forward, and Zartico is just one part of that.
"I believe Gillette is growing," she said. "And for Gillette to prosper, we need to bring in as many events and tournaments as we can."