Councils recommends $15k for Chamber

A controversial request by the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce for increased funding continues to be a topic of dissension as Council’s budget talks wind down toward final reading.

Mike Switzer, Executive Director of the Chamber, originally asked Council for more than $70,000 in April that included funds to renovate and update the offices the Chamber is renting in McNulty Plaza, $5,000 for a new website and $750 for a new computer. When Council rejected that amount, Switzer came back, asking for an increase in the Town’s annual economic grant from $12,500 to $15,000 and $18,500 to hire an employee for the Visitors’ Center.

Because Mayor J. Michael Ross and a partner own the offices the Chamber rents, he recused himself from voting on the $33,000 request, but has taken part in all other discussions concerning the matter

“What concerns me is that there’s no apparent accountability attached to this money. There are no measures of effectiveness. No measures of implementation,” Councilman Malcolm Gordge told fellow Council members during a budget workshop on June 13. “It’s just like throwing money into a pond and it disappears completely. That’s my impression. If we’re going to have this relationship with the Chamber, there ought to be some accountability where this money is going.” Gordge said.

“Certainly, one of the things that really peeves me is that they are setting up this additional website for the Visitors Center which seems to be a completely unnecessary expense, and wanting a new ($750) computer and other things, when they have a website and we have a new website. The two sites could be linked for effective coverage and save costs,” Gordge said. “That’s a discussion worth having, but if you give them the $15,000 now, then we’ve lost the opportunity to reduce it. I want to stick with $12,500 for now,” he said.

But Ross defended Switzer’s request.

“We don’t ask others what they do with money we give them,” Ross said. “We have to trust what they do with it.”

“I understand that,” Gordge said, “but there is at least some visible indication of a service provided.”

“I don’t want to sell the Chamber short,” Ross said. “We see their presence here and what they do. I do see that the mom and pop businesses in town are missing, but they (Chamber) have gone out of the Blythewood area and brought a lot of businesses in. Someone from Columbia joined today. I think we need to be careful. I see a tremendous amount of exposure from the Chamber about breakfasts and speakers they bring,” Ross said.

Ross said he felt the Chamber’s request is reasonable.

“I don’t want to be negative about the Chamber,” Ross said. “They have a new location now (in the McNulty Plaza offices).”

“We gave them a 33 percent raise last year and now they’re asking for 20 percent more,” Councilman Tom Utroska said. “To your point, Mayor, some of the biggest businesses in town are not members of the Chamber. I don’t know why the Chamber can’t convince them, but they can’t,” Utroska said.

Councilman Larry Griffin said he didn’t have any trouble with the $15,000 but wanted accountability from the Chamber.

“Let’s not just throw it out there. If we’re going to give them money, I think we should be able to say, ‘This is what we expect. This is what we’re looking for,’” Griffin said. “Let them understand that they have to be accountable. The Chair of the Chamber was not even aware of how this works. So how is she the Chair and representing these funds, but doesn’t even know the process,” Griffin asked.

Ross defended again, saying that it is the Executive Director (Switzer) who is in the stronger position, that the Chair has a full time job.

Finally, Ross called for a consensus of what Council wanted to put in the budget for the Chamber for third and final reading.

“Do we keep it at $12,500 or give them $15,000?” Ross asked. ”One of the disappointing things is that they said at the meeting they are down in membership. They did not even come up in membership this year.”

Griffin and Gordge went for the full $15,000 amount with conditions. Utroska and Councilman Eddie Baughman said they wanted to keep it at $12,500 for now.

Ross broke the tie on the side of the Chamber, giving them $15,000 this year. It is that amount that will be presented for vote Monday evening when Council takes its final vote on the FY 2017-18 budget.