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|Financial review is MIA, city could strip Chamber of promotion duties|
|Written by Matthew Casey|
|Wednesday, 14 September 2011 00:00|
More than two months after canceling a presentation of a review investigating expenditures of city money by previous Chamber of Commerce administrations, officials refuse to release the report to the public.
The new mayor and council’s relationship with the chamber had a rocky start. The January resignations of Executive Director Pat Greene, President Don Taylor and three other board members followed a city request for financial information on the chamber run but city-owned Boothill Graveyard gift shop. This led to accounting questions about how other city monies were spent. This spring, J.R. Botts, acting as executive director, used chamber funds to pay for a financial review by Heinfeld, Meech & Co.The review was scheduled for presentation to mayor and council on July 12, but according to the minutes from the meeting, the company canceled it until law enforcement could complete an outside review.
“I’m as much in the dark in that (the financial review) as anybody,” said Councilman Steve Troncale. “Its like smoke. It’s like a mystery. Nobody’s seen it. Nobody knows what’s in it. It’s like this mysterious document that’s floating around in Never Never Land.”
Marshal Billy Cloud has the financial review’s preliminary report, but said he won’t release it because it is not complete. Cloud said his office is not conducting a criminal investigation. He asked the chamber to seek out a third party arbitrator to help complete the review by interviewing Greene and Taylor.
The Tombstone Marshal works for the city, and Cloud said because the financial review examines the expenditure of city money, he could be viewed as having a conflict of interest if he were to conduct the interviews. Without a criminal investigation, he said using the third party arbitrator would also ensure “protection of personal reputations.”
On Sept. 12, the Epitaph filed a Freedom of Information Request with Cloud, the chamber and the city asking to see the report. Cloud explained his reason for not releasing the report prior to the Epitaph’s FOIA request. The Epitaph believes the review’s scope of investigating the use of public money makes it a public record. The Epitaph’s request asked Cloud, the chamber and the city to provide a response by 1 p.m. Sept. 19.
Tombstone Chamber of Commerce Vice President Dave Bales said, per Cloud’s request, he could not comment on what’s in the review or when it might be made public.
“We’re frustrated that we can’t hand it out,” he said.
Barnes followed up with the Epitaph immediately and said the city does not possess a copy of the financial review’s preliminary report.
Meanwhile, mayor and council are debating whether to take away the job of promoting Tombstone from the Chamber of Commerce and hiring an outside manager.
The possibility the chamber could lose its promotion responsibilities comes two months after the expiration of the chamber’s city contract that paid it $4,500 a month in bed tax monies to promote tourism and operate the Visitor’s Center. The city and chamber have a separate contract that funnels profits to the chamber from the Boothill Graveyard gift shop, giving the chamber about $6,000 a month for the same purpose.
Tombstone Chamber of Commerce President Susan Wallace said the organization is working with the city, and she hopes a compromise can be reached. Despite loss of revenue from grants and state programs, she said, the chamber is examining ways to increase the money it spends on promotions by using fund raising strategies to match the money contributed by the city.
“These things take time,” she said. “I think the possibility of the city coming in and starting from ground zero would be unfortunate.”
Troncale said the chamber’s previous lack of marketing strategies and its almost constant state of administrative “flux” are the reasons the city is considering using bed tax money to hire a separate promotions manager.
Three weeks ago, the chamber did present the city with a two-year marketing strategy. Tombstone Chamber of Commerce Vice President Dave Bales said the chamber has not received feedback, or a response from the city. The plan highlights targeting specific U.S. and European markets, event promotion, public relations, strengthening the chamber’s website and increasing its traffic.
City Clerk/Manager George Barnes said “there is room for the chamber in the process (of promotion),” but Tombstone’s biggest challenge is implementing a marketing strategy.
“At the end of the day we all have the same goal: Healthy promotion of the city of Tombstone,” he said. “The debate is what’s the best way to do it.”
Wallace said previous contract restrictions did not allow the chamber to hire someone to specifically focus on promotions. Also, he said, the uncertainty that comes with having a 60-day contract cancellation notice on the Boothill Graveyard gift shop made it difficult for the chamber to pool the necessary resources to implement a marketing strategy. The chamber “put out feelers” but is yet to hire a professional replacement for former Executive Director Pat Greene, she said. In the meantime, the chamber’s approximately 100 members are logging “hundreds of volunteer hours,” said Wallace.
“Its difficult to find someone when you can’t tell them what they will get paid and specifically what their responsibilities may be,” she said. “Until we find out exactly where we stand, we can’t make a specific (hiring) plan… Its kind of like hurry up and wait at this point.”
Councilman Jim Dougherty said the chamber recently turned down a city contract proposal that would reduce bed tax monies by more than one half, but be subsidized by increasing profits from the Boothill gift shop. The remainder of the bed tax money, he said, would have gone to balance the city budget.
Wallace said the chamber did not turn down the city’s offer.
“That was something that was proposed and kind of went away,” she said. “The (chamber’s) board thought it was worth a try, as long as it could be re-negotiated if it didn’t work, but it never came to fruition.”
Meanwhile, Troncale and Dougherty are studying the tourism promotion model the city of Bisbee enacted in 2004, when voters approved transferring promotion responsibilities from its chamber of commerce to a promotion manager. Ilona Somerekanich is director of Bisbee’s Visitor’s center. She took over the job in 2004 and also oversees development and implementation of the city’s promotion strategy.
Instead of the chamber producing quarterly reports on tourism promotion to the city, Dougherty said the new Tombstone manager would report directly to Barnes, who reports to mayor and council.
Mayor Jack Henderson said the city looks up to the chamber as the “finest business people in Tombstone,” but in a time when revenues are decreasing, Bisbee successfully promotes itself by spending less money.
“Directly and indirectly the city is providing close to $100 thousand a year…” he said. “Its one of those moral imperatives that we make sure those tax revenues are correctly expended.”
Amidst the uncertain future of who will be responsible for promoting Tombstone, the chamber and the city continue to enjoy success working together on other projects. About three years ago, the chamber took over operation of the Boothill Graveyard gift shop. Officials agree the store has since surpassed expectations in profits and efficiency. Troncale said the work ethic of gift shop manager Dave Askey, who was the chamber hired, is the main reason why.
“He’s a real cracker jack of a manager,” Troncale said. “You couldn’t squeeze another buck out of that joint.”
Less than a year and half ago, the city backed a chamber negotiated deal to keep the state from closing the Historic Cochise County Courthouse, and take over its day to day operations. Troncale said the state was running the museum at a loss, but the chamber brought in over $100 thousand last year. Under law, money made from historic sites like the courthouse can only be used for their maintenance and preservation.
“The Courthouse runs extremely well,” said Councilman Jim Dougherty. “They (the chamber) do a great job.”
Wallace said the chamber is extremely proud of its work at Boothill and the courthouse, and it is pressing forward with plans to create online gift shops for both entities.
But a decision to take control the job of promotion from the chamber would not be unprecedented for Tombstone’s previous and current mayor and councils. In July 2010, the city took over operation of the Senior Center, hiring a new manager. Earlier this year, the council voted unanimously to kill the Food Bank's lease and worked with the Tucson Food Bank to execute another management shake-up.
Still, Troncale said that nothing has been decided, and city officials are hoping there is a “middle ground.”
Mayor Jack Henderson said he hopes the issue is “decided sooner rather than later,” but has not scheduled a vote on the mayor and council agenda.
“We can’t expect instantaneous results,” Troncale said. “But we need to do something, because this town is really hurting right now.”