Leaders of civic groups who seek tourism tax funds to promote their events got mixed answers during a special board of aldermen meeting last Thursday, May 29.
The 2014-15 tourism tax budget is under review after aldermen questioned the lack of detail describing some of the planned expenditures.
The budget has to be approved by June 30 in order to be included in the city budget that goes into effect July 1.
Mayor Jeff Palmore asked for the special meeting to bring him up to snuff on the tourism tax program.
Prior to the meeting, the mayor reviewed the state statutes and city ordinances that enable the city to collect the tax and called for a tourism commission made up of people from the tourism industry to administer the funds.
Palmore said the city ordinance goes beyond what state statute allows and he wants to bring the ordinance and the practice of spending the tourism funds into compliance.
“I want you to know that this is all my opinion, it is open to debate and I want to hear from everyone,” he said.
There is no confusion on one point, Palmore said. The tourism tax is a city tax and the commission must be made up of residents of Pacific, which means civic leader Bill McLaren is not eligible to serve on the commission.
McLaren is currently president of the Pacific Partnership, has served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and operates a public event venue on his family’s Haue Valley Farm north of Pacific. He was one of the organizers who helped orchestrate the ballot measure to allow the city to collect tourism taxes.
Alderman Mike Pigg said the city had made the decision to expand the parameters of who can serve on the tourism commission to coincide with the boundaries of the Meramec Valley R-III School District.
If that was the way the tourism tax was to be administered, the school board not the board of aldermen would establish the tourism commission, Palmore said.
“It is in our city code as a function of the city,” Palmore said.
Dennis Oliver, tourism commission chair, said the reason it was determined that commission members did not have to live in the city was because there are only so many people in the tourism industry who live in the city. He noted that John Behrer, Shaw Nature Reserve manager, was on the commission prior to McLaren.
“If our city attorney can convince us that this is a school district commission then I’m good with that,” Palmore said.
Keith Bruns, tourism commission chairman, said he also questioned the opinion that members had to live in the city.
“I think of what the late Lloyd Baker and Joe Dailey, who did a lot for our city. Neither lived in the city of Pacific at times,” Bruns said. “Some people from outside the city have an interest in the city.”
“The statute is clear that all citizens shall be residents of the city,” Palmore said. “If we construe this to mean you could live in the county, we could go to Clayton and get someone to serve on the commission and the governing body would be the St. Louis County commissioners.”
Carol Johnson said she believes the city is on the right track in bringing all questions about the tourism tax funds out in the open.
“What we’re doing here tonight is to determine who can be on the tourism commission and what can the money be spent on,” Johnson said. “This has been our biggest barrier.”
Johnson had asked for a special meeting when she raised questions about funds assigned to the downtown business association for its events. She said the tourism commission minutes were inaccurate and the downtown group had not been treated fairly.
Mike Bates said he agreed with Palmore’s interpretation of the statute and wants to bring city ordinances in compliance, but he worries that the discussion was taking place at budget time and he wants to make sure the civic groups would have funds in the upcoming budget.
“According to our ordinance, the tourism commission has to submit a budget by May 1,” Bates said. “I don’t want to say there will be no expenditures this year because we didn’t meet the ordinance requirement.”
City Attorney Matt Schroeder said even though aldermen did not approve the tourism budget it had been submitted so the May 1 stipulation had been met.
“The deadline was met,” Schroeder said. “Now we have to go back and parse it and go on.”
Palmore agreed, saying he did not want to impact the events.
“This is no time to pick nits,” he said. “We’re in the process of making a better process.”
McLaren said the biggest challenge for the new administration is to clarify what a commission is and identify what administer means.
“I suggest that it’s not all the tourism commission and not all the board of aldermen,” McLaren said. “There needs to be some give and take to build a budget that works.”
The board of aldermen decision to hold back a portion of the funds as a reserve fund has limited the tourism commission’s ability to meet the spirit of the state statute, McLaren said.
“When the money comes in, not all of the money goes to the commission to use,” McLaren said. “A contingency fund has been built up to $170,000. It seems to me like a lot more could be done with the money.
“I don’t think any single event or program should be 100 percent funded by tourism money,” he added. “Some money should be raised somewhere else. Any organization asking for funds should have some skin in the game.”
McLaren also said more effective use of the funds could be made if the tourism commission bought advertising in bulk for the entire year rather than having each organization negotiate with newspapers and radio for their specific events. He said he’d like to see someone on the city staff make the purchase and place the ads.
Johnson restated her discontent with the downtown business association’s request that was not granted, but Dennis Oliver said it was in the budget.
“He (Mueller) requested $3,000 and we gave him $2,500,” Oliver said. “I didn’t assume that he wanted other money.”
Palmore stopped the debate saying his goal is to decide ground rules not work out finite details.
“That discussion would be better served in a tourism commission meeting,” Palmore said.
The mayor also said while the city attorney will guide officials on the tourism program, if the attorney comes up with something he does not agree with he wouldn’t go along with it.
“If we take exception to his advice, we will discuss it,” Palmore said.
Bob Masson said that while the hotels had collected $382,000 in tourism taxes since the tax began, tourism has not increased in the city.
“It’s obvious to me that this program hasn’t increased our tourism revenue,” Masson said.
To help create a consensus among the board of aldermen and tourism commission, Masson said a good definition of what tourism is and which body decides what tourism is, is needed.
There ought to be a unit of measure to see if money spent on specific events brought in any visitors, he said.
Masson also said some decisions need to be made as a result of the open discussion.
“I’d like to see you determine who administers the tourism money and have confidence in that body, let it do its job and not micromanage it,” he said.
Tim Baker, who served as tourism chairman from 2010 to 2014, said he believes the tourism commission has a larger role to play than just distributing funds to the civic groups for their events.
“Two years ago I went to every group and told them that the tourism commission was pulling back and would use some of the tax funds to help promote the city,” Baker said.
“When Miss (Sheila) Steelman was here, we put tens of thousands of brochures in hotels as far as Joplin,” Baker said. “That’s what we were trying to get back to. We also put billboards on I-44. That was the only thing the hotels asked for and they’re the ones collecting the taxes.”
Baker was term limited out as a tourism commission member, according to statute.
“I don’t want to hurt any of the organizations, but I agree with Mr. McLaren, they need to have some skin in the game,” he said.
Baker said the tourism money has not been spent to the best advantage of the city.
“Two years ago we had a visitor center committee that determined that the city could have a visitors center, which included how it would be funded, with one-third of the funds coming from the tourism tax and nothing happened,” Baker said. “We could have a visitors center right now.”
The open debate is the right direction for the city, according to Stephen Flannery, park board president.
“I’ve heard seven people come with seven ideas,” Flannery said. “It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve had a discussion like this. I think this is going well.”
Flannery identified three ways to track tourism spending. The number of people at an event, the increased sale of food and fuel on the day of the event and the funds the civic groups spend on social programs.
“If they (civic groups) contribute more back into the community, we assume they made money at the event,” Flannery said. “They got the money from somewhere.”
Oliver asked the city to provide the tourism commission with guidelines on what tourism funds could be spent on, but Palmore countered that it’s the tourism commission that should provide aldermen with a recommendation of what funds should be spent on.
Alderman Mike Pigg echoed McLaren’s sentiment, saying the board of aldermen had to have some input into the tourism commission’s understanding of what the funds could be spent for in order to come up with a program that works.
Palmore suggested a joint meeting between aldermen and the tourism commission to hammer out a working definition of acceptable tourism expenditures. He said he will arrange a meeting within the next two weeks.