For the past several months, the issues surrounding the funding of the Clinton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has gotten to a point of embarrassment for the both the City and the CVB. This week, Judiciary Committee and full Council will both discuss changes to the legislation on the funding to the CVB , which is mandated by the state to be 50% of the lodging tax collected by the City.
The City’s Proposal
The City has decided to legislate that the CVB will get the state-mandated 50% of the lodging tax revenue, with 49% going to tourism more generally (and 1% going to administration). The CVB could apply for that money, along with other local organizations. Some that have been brought up as examples are the City Parks and Recreation department and Main Street Wilmington, with whom the CVB has had some collaboration in the past.
The CVB Response
The CVB has pulled out all of the stops trying to stop this change from being put into the legislation. Their concern is their loss of around $50,000 worth of income, out of an approximately $300,000 budget (this assumes that the city would not allocate any of the aforementioned 49% to the organization). The CVB and its representative on Council, Joe Spicer, have continued to put up nearly conspiratorial arguments about why the city shouldn’t take away their funding. Bob Heyob, the organization’s treasurer, went so far as to say the city would lose $2 million in tourism with the cuts. That number is ridiculous, and when questioned on it at a Judiciary Committee meeting, it was ignored. Spicer has said that the other money would go to “pet projects.” Debbie Stamper, the Executive Director of the CVB, has written letters to the Wilmington News Journal touting dubious economic impact numbers and saying that other organizations, specifically the Parks department, does not have any oversight of their budget. She also claimed that the money from the lodging tax was not public money, which drew a rebuke from several members of city government.
Where the City went wrong
From the beginning, the City lost the message of the issue, making it about moving money for tourism from the CVB to other organizations. As Wilmington faces a potential financial crisis, why have we decided to not use the rest of that money for the general fund? Instead, Council focused the discussion on using it for Parks and Recreation, as long as that money was used to draw tournaments to the City. Instead of having a conversation about the best use for that money, Council immediately capitulated to the belief that all of the money must go to tourism.
I have had conversations with several members of Council about waste in the CVB. Many have received or seen the organization’s Christmas cards, which are pointless and wasteful. Also, the organization spends over $25,000 in rent and utilities for a building in which two people work. In addition, they are spending $10,000 for their website, which is far more expensive than any of the local non-profit organizations with which I am familiar. Yet the organization is balking at transparency to Council-the organization elected by the citizens of Wilmington to protect public funds.
Council has its last shot this week. Either bow to pressure from the CVB to not cut their funding, or stand up for the General Fund and acknowledge the extreme financial pressure we are under. The City has been talking about this issue for a long time, and it is time to act. If Council decides that the CVB is deserving of the money when the City’s budget comes up, that is fine. The City should not force themselves into limited language on how that money is spent.