A discussion of how to use lodging tax funds turned into a discussion about the purpose of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce at last night’s Sunnyside City Council meeting.
Councilman Francisco Guerrero, chair of the lodging tax advisory committee, presented recommendations on four of 12 requests received by the committee.
The council approved full funding for the Miss Sunnyside float and the city’s Cinco de Mayo event, but rejected an application for bocce ball tournaments. The council also funded the chamber for less than it requested and asked for a seat for a council member on the chamber board along with better accounting of how lodging tax money is spent.
Each request has two funding priorities, one to fully fund the project and the other for either partial funding or a smaller project. The advisory committee recommends a level at which each project should be funded based on the application made by the organization.
The committee recommended funding the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce at $30,000, well below its priority one request of $45,000 and its priority two request of $40,000. According to Guerrero, the committee felt that the application from the chamber did not have sufficient detail. The committee recommended that the chamber provide the details and have the council approve further funding once it was satisfied the funds were being used for tourism purposes.
Pam Turner, executive director of the chamber, came forward to answer questions. She said she had not been informed that the application had problems, and asked what needed to be done.
Mayor Jim Restucci asked if the $45,000 request was to be used for the chamber’s operating expenses. Turner said yes, noting that the chamber also sends out pamphlets promoting the town.
Restucci then read the law regarding lodging tax funds and said he is a little concerned about the funding going to the chamber.
“We’re having a discussion right now about whether or not we need to be spending money on tourism, and on events and on the chamber,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, those are three separate entities.”
Restucci said that Turner is a good events coordinator, but believes the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce is not doing its job.
“Its core responsibility is to build and foster relationships between businesses in our community,” he said. “Its job is to help facilitate businesses. Its job is not to coordinate events.”
He said that although some chambers have taken on duties related to events, the core function of a chamber of commerce is to bring businesses together. He said that only 140 or so of the 865 businesses in Sunnyside belong to the chamber, which shows that it is not accomplishing what a chamber should be accomplishing.
Restucci said he doesn’t want to pull any money from the events, but he is not certain that the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce is the proper vehicle for the events.
He said the city could hire an events coordinator or contract with the chamber, but it needs to be explicit and separate, not just an annual check from the city to the chamber for tourism promotion.
Restucci also suggested that the chamber modify its bylaws and allow a seat for a city council member on the board.
“That would go a long way to us knowing what is going on with the board and the function and direction that they’re going,” he said.
He said that he doesn’t want to cut funding for the chamber this year.
“It’s too short notice,” he said. “It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the things they do for this city.”
He said he was willing to support priority one funding this year provided that the council puts the chamber on notice that funding won’t be approved in the same way next year. He suggested that the chamber spend this year working on separating tourism and events from the core functions of the chamber.
Deputy Mayor Theresa Hancock noted that the advisory committee suggested that funding be withheld until the details are provided. She said that suggestion brings the chamber to the table with the city to make decisions on how the relationship between the city and the chamber will develop in the future.
Guerrero was concerned that the city not dictate to the chamber board, a private entity. Restucci said the arrangement is a quid pro quo.
“I’m telling you right now that if we don’t see a board seat by the end of this year for a member of this body on their board, personally I’m not voting to approve any more funding for the chamber,” he said.
Restucci said the city is funding the majority of the chamber’s operations. With that sort of support, a representative of the city needs to be on the board of directors.
Councilmen Jason Raines asked Turner how much of the chamber’s budget is paid for by the city.
“I would say about 75 percent,” said Turner. “But remember, you guys are a pass-through. I take everything into consideration and my board will too. I think sitting down and figuring everything out is a wonderful idea. But remember, it’s a private non-profit.”
Raines said that some cities have a visitor center and Sunnyside could contract for that, but it’s not the same thing as a chamber of commerce.
Turner agreed but noted that the chamber is serving as a visitor center for the city already.
“If you come into my office and you see all the pamphlets and everything that we have, 90 percent of what we do is tourism related,” she said. “I mail out information to people out of town, I take phone calls... to bring people to Sunnyside is what we want to do. That in turn brings money for businesses. People spend money here.”
Raines suggested funding the chamber at the advisory committee’s level and provide additional funds once the questions about the funding have been answered.
Councilman Spencer Martin suggested splitting the difference and funding at $38,000, while leaving the option open to approve further funding later. He asked Turner if the chamber could make it on that much funding. She said that it was possible, but it would be a struggle.
Martin moved to approve $38,000 and was seconded by Hancock. The board agreed to re-examine the situation by June. At that point, another member of the audience stepped forward to argue for the chamber.
Sharon Dolan thanked the council for supporting the Miss Sunnyside float, then noted that the chamber also supports the float by providing insurance coverage. She felt the motion by Martin might be risky, as the chamber’s insurance policy expires in June.
“All of this impacts a lot of things,” she said, referring to the chamber’s funding. “It really needs to be a transition, whatever happens.”
Turner said that it would not be a problem.
“We’re going to continue on, doing what we’re doing, hoping that in June we get funded for the rest,” she said.
The council voted unanimously to fund the chamber at $38,000, with the caveat that more funding could be available later if the chamber meets the council’s request for more information.
The council also approved the request for $20,000 for the Cinco de Mayo event with almost no discussion.
The Miss Sunnyside float was approved at the priority one level of $7,600 despite the advisory committee recommending it be funded at $6,500. The reasoning for the lower amount this year was that the full amount was not used last year.
Martin said that would be setting a negative precedent. He said if the funding level is reduced based on what is used, the tendency would be to use the full amount even if it is not needed to make sure to get fully funded next year.
Because the money is reimbursed and not given directly to the recipients, Martin said having the Miss Sunnyside Committee use less funds is a good thing. He didn’t want to set a precedent of taking away funding if it’s not used and argued the council should fully fund the float.
The council agreed with Martin and voted to provide the full amount.
The final request was from Best Western Grapevine Inn to fund advertising for two bocce ball tournaments. The advisory committee recommended fully funding it, but when the council learned that the application was incomplete they sent it back to the committee.