Wednesday, March 27, 2013
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City talks tourism

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[March 27, 2013]  Tuesday evening all 10 members of the Lincoln City Council were present for the committee of the whole meeting at City Hall. The meeting lasted in excess of two hours and covered several topics, including what is going on between the city and the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County.

The tourism bureau had an emergency meeting last week to discuss what to do about reports they had received that the city was going to take over the hotel-motel tax in Lincoln. This is the money that provides the lion's share of the funding for tourism. The funds are currently under the control of the Logan County Board, but the city has the right to take those funds into their coffers.

At last week's meeting of the tourism board, Alderman Tom O'Donohue attended. This week, he gave the council a report on what happened at that meeting.

He began with the following statement: "I'd like to start by clarifying for those who either don't understand, or haven't had a chance to study. ... At no point, in case you're wondering, has the city council had a conversation about taking away money from tourism. We never said we were taking away the money on May 1; we never said we were taking away the money on Dec. 1.

"However," he continued, "as I told the tourism group last Monday, it is going to be part of the budget conversation. What we were talking about earlier, as Alderman Anderson brought up, there are places where there is money out there. For instance, tourism has averaged over the last five years about $155,000 from the hotel-motel tax. So there is going to be a conversation of the city council: Does the city council want to take control of that $155,000 a year, or does it want to keep it where it is? So that is all that we have discussed at this point. There is no one who's ever said we are taking the money. There are aldermen who think it is a good idea; there are aldermen who think it's not a good idea."

O'Donohue wrapped up by saying: "So, we never had the discussion. I just want to say that first, so the people are telling stories about me around the council chambers when I am not around can just relax and take a deep breath."

He went on to talk about the conversations at the tourism meeting last week. He said the tourism board wanted a guarantee that the council would not take the money on May 1. O'Donohue said he told the group he was not in a position to make that guarantee for the city, but he didn't see how the city could do it that quickly, that they wouldn't be ready to do it.

O'Donohue said that ultimately, because the council couldn't offer the guarantee, the tourism bureau decided to cancel many of the projects they currently have going. He named specifically that the list included canceling advertising as well as the annual tourism breakfast, normally in April, and several other items.

In addition to those discussions, O'Donohue said he had been given a packet of tourism bureau materials that contained information he doesn't believe the city has ever seen before. He noted there was an operating budget in the packet, a copy of the tourism bylaws and a strategic plan. He urged the council members to read all the content and said it was enlightening as to what the tourism bureau was doing in the city and county.

He told the council that during last week's meeting, the tourism board had voted to make him a voting member of the board and had approved appointing another city council member as an ex officio member.

O'Donohue noted that this will have to be approved by the Logan County Board, which currently has jurisdiction over the bureau. He also noted that the tourism bylaws have no provisions in them for an ex officio from the city.

O'Donohue wrapped up his presentation by saying he knew not everyone would be interested in tourism, but he really wanted to encourage everyone to read especially the budget and the long-term goals of the strategic plan.

"Those are the issues we will be discussing when it comes to whether or not we want to look at taking the money or not," he said. "As I told the tourism board, the money is mostly generated by businesses in Lincoln, and currently, as it stands, the people of Lincoln don't really have a say in how the money is spent."

O'Donohue noted that a member of the tourism board was in the gallery, as well as Bill Hoagland from Main Street Lincoln. Andi Hake of the Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce was also on hand, along with county board member Andy Anderson.

The member of the tourism board on hand was Stacie Wachtel, who at the regular monthly meeting of the tourism board, earlier in the evening, was appointed to the position of bureau chairwoman, with Peggy Lee of Elkhart being appointed as the vice chair.

Wachtel introduced herself to the council and posed a question. She said she wanted to know if the talk about taking the tourism money away didn't come from the council, where did it come from?

O'Donohue said he'd be happy to share his opinion, but it was just an opinion. Nothing further was said.

Wachtel also told the council that she thought last week's meeting was a good step to moving forward with the city.

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During discussion, David Wilmert said he didn't have a problem with offering the tourism bureau a guarantee that the city would not take the money on May 1. Melody Anderson said she didn't see any way the city could take it that soon even if they were so inclined.

Sue McLaughlin, city administrator, also said: "I told Mr. Ladd three times in our meeting (just prior to the current city meeting) that there was no way we could do it by then, even if the council were so inclined. We couldn't get it done by then."

O'Donohue asked if there was anyone who did want to try to take the money May 1, and no one responded.

Jonie Tibbs questioned the future of the tourism bureau, asking if the city would dissolve the bureau after taking the money.

Mayor Keith Snyder and O'Donohue both said no, not all.

She then asked how the bureau would be funded.

O'Donohue said it would be the city's responsibility to handle those funds and distribute them. He added that even if the city did take the money, it does not have the authority to dissolve the tourism bureau.

Tibbs asked if the city would hire a different director. Snyder answered, "It could be; we've not made that decision."

Tibbs also commented that no one on the council knew about this until the "cat got out of the bag." She said they learned after the fact that there had been a meeting of "certain individuals" about this. She said the council has always talked about these things as a group, and she felt there should have been a meeting about this.

Tibbs also noted that a city representative has been appointed to the tourism bureau in the past. She noted an appointment was made four years ago, but said she couldn't say if that person attended any of the meetings.

Snyder responded to Tibbs, saying: "There was no cat to let out of the bag. The discussion was always going to come up as part of our budget discussion. It was the tourism's choice to call a special meeting and bring attention to the fact that we were going to have this discussion.

"I had a conversation with Mr. Ladd two weeks ago about it. He wanted to know where things were because the council has talked about doing it previously. He wanted to know where things were, and I said it would be part of our budget discussion, and that was it.

"He said, ‘When do you think it might happen?' and I said, ‘I don't think it would be fair for it to happen before Dec. 1,' so I don't know where all this nonsense about May 1 came from.

"I also know the furor, if you will, was created by tourism calling a special meeting. It was always going to be discussed as part of our budget discussion April 1."

Snyder went on to say there were people who talked about this, but there were no clandestine meetings about it.

O'Donohue said he didn't understand the accusation of clandestine meetings -- that aldermen had conversations every day about things. Tibbs asked him how he knew that. And, O'Donohue answered, "Because I've had them with you! You come to me and talk about building and grounds!"

In response to O'Donohue raising his voice, David Armbrust blurted out: "Get off your soapbox. You're blowing my hearing aid out."

The discussion on tourism came to a halt immediately thereafter, and the council moved on to other topics.

It should be noted that the tourism bureau had its regularly scheduled monthly meeting Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. LDN also will have a report on that meeting in today's edition. For the tourism meeting, O'Donohue was unable to attend, and McLaughlin went in his stead.


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