Wednesday, January 08, 2014
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Tourism bureau debates paying bill and how to use grant funds

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[January 08, 2014]  Thursday evening, the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County board met for a brief session to authorize the payment of bills for the month.

The board is currently working toward getting back to a regular meeting date on the fourth Tuesday of each month.

At the beginning of December, the tourism bureau began operating as a program administered by the city of Lincoln. Early in the month they had a special meeting to establish officers and assign check signers for the payment of bills.

At that meeting, the board determined that they would need one more special meeting, in early January, solely to authorize the payment of bills, and then they would have their first regular meeting of the new year on Jan. 28.

However, at the recent meeting, interim director Nancy Saul also brought to their attention the status of a state grant, and the group discussed for a while how to best use those dollars according to the grant stipulations.

Board discusses bill from Muck & Muck, Attorneys at Law

At the beginning of the meeting, the first topic was the payment of bills. The board reviewed the list of invoices and quickly questioned one in particular: a bill from Muck & Muck, Attorneys at Law in the amount of $835.11.

Andy Anderson, newly appointed board president, offered an explanation as best as he knew about how the bill had come to be.

According to the invoice, the services performed by Muck & Muck took place between Sept. 23 and Oct. 2. The list of services included an office meeting with the board president at the time, Charlie Ott, and "board members." There were also calls to an unnamed board member, Leslie Hoefle, who was at the time the interim executive director of the bureau, and to State’s Attorney Jonathan Wright.

There were charges for reviewing files pertaining to a "directorship issue," a review of bylaws and statutes, a written reply to a memo from a Logan County Board member, and the writing of a letter to Bob Farmer, county board chairman.

Anderson told the board Thursday night that he was not aware that any of this was happening until he learned of the letter written to Farmer. He said he quickly put a stop to the legal representation, but he was not aware that the bill for services rendered would come to this amount.

It was noted that the invoice said there was a meeting with the bureau president and board members. Anderson said he had not been made aware of such a meeting, even though he was on the board at that time. He said he believed that for the most part, the ones who attended the meeting were probably no longer board members.

He also noted that he had no knowledge of who initiated the meeting with Muck & Muck, but he suspected it was Ott. Darlene Begolka confirmed that. She told the group that Ott had contacted her to attend the meeting, but she did not go, so she couldn’t say who in fact did attend.

Anderson also noted that Muck & Muck had conversations with Hoefle. Anderson said he went to her and asked about the meeting, but she was not forthcoming with much information.

Anderson said that judging by the dates on which all this occurred, he believed this was at the time when Ott was hoping to find a way to keep the city of Lincoln from taking over the hotel-motel tax and thus becoming the governing body overseeing tourism. But he qualified this assumption by saying he really had no knowledge of the conversations.

During discussion of the bill, the question arose as to whether Ott had the right to hire an attorney without the consent of the full board. At the moment, no one had a copy of the old bylaws in front of them, but Tom O’Donohue, who has reviewed the document and rewritten portions of it for the new board, felt there was probably nothing in the bylaws to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

This led to a discussion as to whether the bylaws needed to be amended. The group will be looking at that in the future.

In the meantime, O’Donohue said that if the tourism bureau created the bill, they were probably going to have to pay it. But he wanted to know more about the services rendered before writing the check.

O’Donohue also said that the services of the attorney were obtained without full board approval. He noted: "If we wanted to make an argument that they (former bureau board members) did this without board authority, so the bill is on them personally, but I don’t think it is worth it. And if they did it on behalf of the board, we will be hard-pressed not to pay it."

In the end the board decided that they were going to withhold payment of the bill for this month and seek more information about the services rendered before making the payment.

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Discussion of grant fund use and website development

Before the meeting adjourned, Saul told the board there was another issue that they needed to be aware of.

The bureau has a grant through the Local Tourism and Convention Bureau program. The grant is a 50-50 match between state funds and local funds. In total the bureau received $27,493 from the state and matched that dollar to dollar. Therefore, for the year beginning July 1, 2013, and ending June 30, 2014, they must spend a total of $54,986 or return the unused portion of the grant funds to the state.

To date the bureau has spent only $7,393, leaving $47,593 that must be spent in the next six months.

The dollars remaining and their designations would be for meeting and convention market, $4,000; motorcoach and group tour market, $10,787; sports marketing, $12,400; consumer and leisure market, $13,876.87; and festivals and special events, $6,528.89.

Inside the grant agreement, seven objectives were set: Increase sports tourism, increase website use, increase group tours, increase Route 66 tourism, research and evaluate new advertising methods, increase community partnerships, and increase overnight stays in Logan County by 7 percent.

As the board reviewed the documents Saul had presented, one of the first questions was addressed to bureau director Jean Bruner-Jachino of the Hampton Inn. She was asked if a 7 percent increase in overnight stays was a reasonable number.

Bruner-Jachino told the board that in her business that number was very low. She said at the Hampton, when they are looking to increase overnight stays, they set a goal of at least a 20 percent increase.

Saul had also provided information about advertising opportunities the bureau could use to expend the grant. The board talked about the value of promoting Logan County with the United Motorcoach Association.

According to the memo Saul provided, an advertisement in the publication would draw attention to Logan County as a destination for motorcoach tours. The memo stated that on average, one overnight motorcoach trip can generate over $11,000 in local economic impact.

Again, it was Bruner-Jachino who said these tours were of great value, but she also noted that by now tour packages for 2014 are completed. She said she felt advertising with the association would have great value, but it would be a year or more before the bureau might see any results.

The board reviewed other opportunities to spend the grant funds as presented by Saul, but then moved on to discussion of how to use the money to create a better tourism website. Improving the current website was one of the objectives of the grant.

First, Saul reported that while the staff had not had access to the website since the departure of former director Geoff Ladd, the bureau does own the website and can make changes to it.

She said the website is currently out of date and she wanted to get it updated with new information.

It was soon noted that the website in general was lacking and could be greatly improved upon.

Discussions followed about if the bureau improved the website or created a new one. Could they, for example, use a portion of the $12,400 in the grant designated for sports tourism to help pay for the sections on the website that addressed local sports?

Saul said they could.

The group decided to explore this further. Mayor Keith Snyder suggested that Saul spend some time looking at other tourism websites, and if she saw something she liked, to contact that bureau and ask who they had do their site. It was discussed that the board should send out "Request for proposal" letters to website designers or take bids for the project.

Finally, the group acknowledged the need to move sooner rather than later on spending the grant funding. With the fiscal year for the grant ending June 30, if the money is not all spent, the unused portion will have to be returned to the state. In addition, not using the money could possibly result in a reduction in grant funding in the future.

The board ended their evening shortly after this discussion.

The plan is to get the schedule back on track with another regular business meeting on Jan. 28, the fourth Tuesday of the month. Once that is achieved, the board will go back to meeting only once a month, on the fourth Tuesday. Meeting times have been changed to start at 5 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. as they have been in the past. The meeting location has also been changed to the Hampton Inn for the foreseeable future.


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