Chamber wants tax funds back

Vote of members petitions city council
Reporter Editor

Chamber Chair Janice King (standing) presides as chair-elect Cynthia Lumpkin (L) and immediate past chair Michael Walko look on. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Chamber Chair Janice King (standing) presides as chair-elect Cynthia Lumpkin (L) and immediate past chair Michael Walko look on. Reporter/Mike Brown The annual Rockdale Chamber of Commerce membership meeting is usually a placid “the future lies before us” affair.

Not in 2014. Thursday’s session in the Fair Park Clubhouse included an overwhelming vote by the membership to try and reclaim hotel/ motel tax funds it gave up in 2012 and an amiable but-intense discussion how Rockdale needs to proceed in attracting tourists and new businesses.

At stake is at least the possibility of the Chamber re-hiring a full-time president to work on such matters and possibly the future of the organization’s rock house “tourist information” office.

New Chamber Chair Janice King said the vote was 76 to 8 in favor of asking the city council to again allow the organization to administer HOT (hotel-motel tax) funds, with three abstentions. See box on page 6A for vote explanation.

Directors (L-R) Pat Watson, Dave Phillips, Julie Sulak, Joyce Ford and Ann King look over budget reports during Zach Gallop, Cynthia Lumpkin, Janice King, Mike Walko, annual Chamber of Commerce membership meeting. Directors (L-R) Pat Watson, Dave Phillips, Julie Sulak, Joyce Ford and Ann King look over budget reports during Zach Gallop, Cynthia Lumpkin, Janice King, Mike Walko, annual Chamber of Commerce membership meeting. The secret ballot was taken after the organization’s directors recommended passage of the proposal.

“We had a great Chamber,” new director Ann King (no relation to Janice King) said. “To have a viable Chamber, I don’t see any other way to do it (besides HOT funding).”

“When the Chamber dropped it (administration of the funds on Nov. 7, 2012) so quickly, without consulting with the membership, it was a great shock,” Dr. Lucile Estell said.

OPTIONS—Two other options for administering the tax are in the mix.

One is to continue the current scenario where the city’s tourism committee makes recommendations to the city council on how funds are to be spent and the city council then votes on that recommendation.

The third, which was mentioned several times Thursday, is a pending proposal by the Rockdale Municipal Development District (MDD) to cre- ate a Director of Tourism and Recreation with the MDD funding 60 percent of the cost.

Kara Clore, MDD director, said the development district, working with the tourism committee, has drawn up a draft job description for the proposed position.

Such a director would “report to the MDD Board of Directors, take direction from the tourism committee and work in concert with the city council.”

The proposed guidelines call for the director to develop and manage a tourism budget, review and obtain authorization on expenditures and serve as a liaison between local organizations and entities, including the Chamber.

“The idea is to assist the city and tourism committee in becoming a self-sustaining body of the city, not just using the HOT funds until they are gone, then wait for more to come in,” she said.

The MDD board will discuss the full proposal in a Thursday session and the matter should be on the city council agenda for Monday.

RETURN—Janice King acknowledged the ongoing situation had created some controversy but said she believed returning the funds to Chamber jurisdiction would bring the community together.

“We (the Chamber) have done it before,” King said. “We already have the infrastructure. The Chamber will once again play a major role in the community.”

She said at present the Chamber receives about $26,000 annually from tourism funds, which support the visitor center. “If administering of the tourism funds goes to someone else, we are not assured of that funding.”

The Chamber has not had a president since the resignation of Deedra Jacob in October, 2012. Members on Thursday approved changes in the organization’s constitution allowing it to continue operating without filling that office.

Joan Ratliff asked if Chamber directors had decided how the position of president would be funded if the organization received the hotel-motel tax funds.

Janice King said they had not.

“I feel like it’s difficult to ask the members to make a decision (on asking for the funding to return) without knowing what the financial situation is, without receiving the data,” Ratliff said.

MDD—Several Chamber members asked where the ultimate decision making would lie if the MDD’s proposal of a tourism and recreation director became reality.

Mayor John King (no relation to Chamber Chair Janice King) said the MDD was “independent” and the city council does not have authority over the development district’s expenditures of funds.

“We (the council) do have the authority to appoint and remove MDD board members,” King said.

City Manager Kelvin Knauf told The Reporter when the city contracted with the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber was the entity which made the funding decisions.

“So it may be that way if the city were to contract with the MDD, but unless there is a written agreement it is kind of speculation at this point,” he said.

Janice King pointed out the vote taken by Chamber members on Thursday was only expressing the entity’s willingness to again request administration of the funds from the city and that the council would make the ultimate decision.

BACKGROUND—Until Nov. 7, 2012, the Chamber received hotel-motel tax funds, using them to conduct a number of local events. Those funds also helped to fund a president and office manager for the organization.

For months previously there had been some long-simmering tensions between the Chamber and some members of the city council over Chamber operations, tensions that boiled over in an Oct. 23 workshop to discuss the upcoming annual contract with the city.

“I thought we had everything worked out,” then Chamber Chair Debra Jackson told The Reporter. “But by the next day I was hearing there were apparently still some issues, that there was an alternate plan somewhere. I felt like a dead horse that kept getting beaten up.”

At the Chamber board meeting two weeks later, attended by all but one director, a motion was made that the Chamber not administer the tax. It passed unanimously and the decision was communicated to the city on that day.

COMMITTEE—An interim plan was formed. Groups wanting to sponsor events applied to the city for hotel-motel tax funds.

During 2013 a tourism committee was formed to administer funds from the tax and to plan events, with final approval coming from the city council.

An independent consulting and promotion firm— with oversight by the tourism committee and the city—was hired, then fired, last year.

How voting was determined

The 76 to 8 vote reported by the Chamber of Commerce was a “weighted” ballot based on the amount of dues paid by businesses and members, according to Janice King, Chamber chair. There were not that number of persons attending the meeting.

Number of votes alloted was determined in accordance with a voting guide which was consulted when members signed up before the meeting. Each ballot listed how many votes the person casting it would receive for their businesses and/or themselves.

There were three abstentions.—M.B.

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