Apr 272012

Spirited discussion dominated a Holbrook City Council work session this week focusing on distribution of lodgers tax revenues and Holbrook Chamber of Commerce funding.

As part of the 2012-2013 budget planning process, City Manager Ray Alley sought the input of the council on distribution of the lodgers tax dollars, which Alley said the city conservatively estimates will reach about $155,000 for the coming year.

Alley opened the discussion noting the city is proposing continuing to give $40,000 to the Navajo County Fair, as it has done in recent years; dedicating $28,800 to the Navajo County Historical Society as part of an existing memorandum of understanding between the city and the historical society; and cover the cost of the marquee and various other tourism-related expenses, leaving the breakdown of funding for the Chamber of Commerce as a topic that needed council discussion.

Alley’s opening remarks were followed by a presentation by Chamber Board of Directors Member Rachel McCormick, who outlined the chamber’s accomplishments in recent years, after dropping from a budget of $231,000 in 2008 to a current budget of $26,000.

McCormick requested the city continue to dedicate $26,000 of lodgers tax revenues to the chamber and provide an additional $30,000 to hire a full-time person to replace outgoing Chamber Director Emily Wheeler, who has been reassigned to work full-time for the police department.

Councilman Wade Carlisle led out for the council by declaring his desire to have lodgers tax dollars go strictly to items that directly support tourism. He specified he did not want the city to provide $30,000 to fund a chamber employee, rather he would like the city to hire a special events director to handle special events and tourism, leaving the chamber free for strictly chamber-related functions, which he described as business mixers, recruiting businesses, supporting the business community and lobbying.

“I don’t think we should be funding business mixes with tourism dollars,” said Carlisle.

Chamber members rejoined by clarifying that tourism dollars aren’t spent on chamber mixers, and said because of strong relationships established between the chamber and businesses, the businesses host the mixers at no cost to the chamber.

While he complimented the current chamber of commerce board and director on the activities and accomplishments of the past few years, Carlisle was adamant in expressing displeasure about past chamber actions.

“The reason the chamber got all its funding cut was for things like paying for a lifetime cell phone for an employee and their spouse. …I’m not at all in favor of handing over a block of funds to do whatever,” he said. “Emily was exceptional at her position but she was paid out of city funds. I would like to see the city fund out of its money an event coordinator, we can offer retirement benefits… then we can really put the money into the events that bring tourists to our town.”

Referencing a letter the chamber presented from a local motel operator, in which the author expressed concern about the city planning to cut tourism funding, Carlisle countered, “Contrary to the Motel 6 letter, I’m saying we should eliminate funding for anything that’s not directly tourism related.”

Carlisle said that funding a full-time position at the chamber means funding that person with lodgers tax money, even though much of that person’s time would be spent on non-tourism, chamber-focused activities. He’d rather see all tourism dollars go back into only tourism-related activities.

Carlisle and Alley both mentioned the city would be able to offer an employee benefits and retirement, which the chamber wouldn’t be able to offer, and could therefore attract “somebody at a higher caliber rather than a $9 per hour employee.”

Carlisle’s comments elicited an emotional response from Wheeler who addressed the council.

“I’m really hurt by what I’m hearing. We took the chamber when nobody (cared about it), we have grown it, we have brought it back from the dust,” said Wheeler.

She said while some chambers function solely as business and commerce support, there are many chambers of commerce that pull dual-duty as tourism promoters.

“All the White Mountain chambers do tourism along with business growth,” she said.

Wheeler referenced the recent growth of the Holbrook Wild West Days event and said vendors and contestants are vying to participate in the event that just a few years ago was on the chopping block.

“If you yank everything away right now, you do more harm than good,” said Wheeler.

In response to Carlisle’s comments about past chamber accounting practices, Wheeler said, “There’s nothing that’s not open and fiscally responsible.”

Council members and Alley followed Wheeler’s remarks with assurances that they didn’t believe Carlisle meant to call her performance into question, and all agreed Wheeler and the current chamber have done a great job.

“I want to echo that I’ve seen a dramatic change in the direction of the chamber… There’s the adage ‘that which governs least, governs best.’ We tried that and it didn’t work out so well so oversight is wise,” said Vice Mayor Charles Haussman. “I do want you to know you have my faith and you have my trust.”

Mayor Jeff Hill spoke up, “I did not take this in any way as a criticism of you or the chamber.”

He added his interpretation is the chamber can’t compete with what the city could offer an employee, so the city should create a staff position that can take on the tourism portion and continue to work in cooperation with the chamber as usual.

Saying there are lots of good things happening through the chamber, Hill continued, “We want it to continue. I didn’t hear an accusation in there,” (referring to Carlisle’s comments.) Your budget’s yours. The only part we oversee is the money from the bed tax. He’s asking council to make sure that’s spent on bringing people to our community as tourism.”

“Emily, you and Yvonne, you guys are champions of this community. As a co-business owner, as an elected official, as a resident, I thank you,” Hill said, also referencing Chamber President Yvonne Larson.

Past Chamber President Paul Dobell took issue with Carlisle’s characterization of past chamber activities, saying to Hill, “He gave one impression to your entire council that I don’t think is fair.”

Hill countered that there are audits of the chamber of commerce available for public review at city hall, which citizens could review and decide for themselves how past chambers managed finances.

Dobell concluded, “I just felt it (Carlisle’s characterization of past chamber activity) was one side of a coin and not a fair assessment.”

Alley concluded the discussion with the same sentiment which he initiated it: that he is happy with the working relationship the city has with the chamber and pleased with the work it is accomplishing.

“I don’t have any issues with the historical society or the chamber of commerce. I don’t think anything’s broken,” he said.

While chamber funding dominated the conversation about lodgers tax, council members also said they want city staff to propose options for funding further development of Hidden Cove Park (also known as Petroglyph Park) as a tourist attraction, and discussed a funding request by the historical society.

Dobell, who is now president of the historical society, requested an additional $2,200 to cover the society’s error in calculating payroll taxes for a historical society employee.

Alley offered that it was a policy decision of the council to determine if the memorandum of understanding with the historical society should be amended to increase the city’s contribution, and offered that rather than increasing funding, the council could agree to reduce the number of hours the employee worked to make up the difference in wage. The employee in question staffs the front desk of the historic county courthouse and reducing work hours would reduce the operating hours of the courthouse.

“If we lower the hours it could offset the amount needed to cover payroll taxes… The extra money requested would have to come from somewhere,” Alley said.

Carlisle said he was not in favor of amending the memorandum of understanding at this time and that a contribution increase should be addressed when the agreement comes up for review in 2014.

Councilman Richard Peterson said he would like to further discuss the option of amending the agreement and considering adjusting courthouse operating hours to account for funding.

Dobell confirmed the historical society does have other sources of funding and some flexibility in its decisions related to other budget elements and responded, “It never hurts to ask.”

Carlisle pointed out that it appeared historical society employees are being paid above minimum wage. He said if the city were going to consider giving out more money, he’d prefer it would go to support an event rather than a salary, where it would have more direct impact.

“I’m as far as I want to go with the historical society,” he concluded.

The work session concluded with direction to Alley to bring forward a proposal for a city event director position and leave other chamber funding as it currently is. The memorandum of understanding among the city, chamber and historical society will be addressed at an upcoming budget meeting.

During the regular council meeting preceding the work session, the council:

* Approved payments of invoices to vendors totaling $216,878.69 for services and purchases from April 5 through April 18.

* Voted against contributing $9,700 to support the White Mountain Connection. Alley recommended against supporting the measure, asserting that 85 percent of the riders live in other communities and are dropped off at the Navajo County Complex south of Holbrook, with the majority of other riders being employees of Northland Pioneer College who live in other towns but work in Holbrook.

“When I was first on board, I was supportive but I made it clear I felt we were using city money to subsidize people to not live in Holbrook,” Haussman said. “Through my vote (against the measure), I’m saying I believe in not subsidizing people who want to not live in Holbrook.”

Councilman Myron Maxwell said, “I don’t think this is a service at this point and time that we can afford to get involved with or have a responsibility to get involved with.”

Peterson added the city would be “supporting it with money we could use elsewhere… those citizens who don’t ride the bus would have to pay for it.”

* Declared Reel Perfection a sole source provider for reel sharpening at Hidden Cove Golf Course. City Clerk Cher Reyes said city staff has been unable to find another provider for on-site services. The only other providers she has found would require the city to transport reels to and from the Phoenix area for repair. Because the cost for the service exceeds $999, three quotes are required to procure services. Reel Perfection’s fees total $1,433.63.

* Adopted the Arizona Mutual Aid Compact, which is to assist in emergency response to incidents such as wildfires or other broad-scale disasters.

* Proclaimed May 1 through May 7 “Youth Week,” stating in their proclamation that they urged “all departments of government, civic, fraternal and patriotic groups, and our citizens generally, to participate wholeheartedly in its observance.”

* Removed from the agenda an item authorizing the Native American Mission Support to lease property from the city at the former Northland Pioneer College campus site. The group has decided against leasing the space at this time because of the repairs required to make the facility habitable.