Switzer presses Council for more funds

BLYTHEWOOD – When Town Council turned down a request last week from Mike Switzer, Executive Director of both the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce and the Blythewood Visitor’s Center, to double the $12,500 Economic Development Grant the Town awards the Chamber each year for operations and to grant an additional $33,000 in Accommodations Tax (A-Tax) funding for the Visitor’s Center, a Town Hall staff member, who is also a member of the Chamber, came to Switzer’s aid during a Council budget workshop on March 25, with a plan she said would allow Council to accommodate Switzer’s request.

“Chris (Keefer, Finance Director) came up with this idea to take a look at how to make use of various (state and local accommodations) funding sources for the Chamber’s request,” Town Administrator Gary Parker, Keefer’s supervisor, told Council. “Good thinking on her part,” Parker added.

Keefer explained how the A-Tax distribution is broken down – the first $25,000 goes into the Town’s General Fund. One hundred percent of the remaining balance is divided into three designations: 5 percent goes into the General Fund, 30 percent goes to an organization that promotes tourism and the remaining 65 percent can be spent on any of a number of designated uses including a Visitor’s Center.

‘So with this in mind, I tried to figure out the best way to allocate so that (the Town) can fund what the Chamber asked for,” Keefer volunteered.

Because some of the $33,000 Switzer requested would go to renovate and pay rent for the Visitor Center’s McNulty Plaza offices, which are owned by Mayor J. Michael Ross and a partner, Ross recused himself from the discussion and vote at the May 22 Council meeting. He did not, however, recuse himself during an extended discussion on the $33,000 request during the budget workshop on May 25.

Of his $33,000 request, Switzer said at the May 22 Council meeting, $5,000 is designated for a website, $750 for a computer, $3,250 for office renovations and $18,000 for a part-time employee

at a cost of $15 per hour for 20 hours plus FICA. He did not say how the remaining $6,000 would be spent. (Switzer also presented Council with the proposed Chamber and Visitor Center’s FY 2017/18 budget as shown above.)

Not taking Council’s May 22, ‘No’ for an answer, Switzer appeared before Council again at the workshop to again request an increase in the Town’s annual Economic Development Grant from $12,500 to $25,000, but reduced his $33,000 request for A-Tax funds to $18,500 which, he said, would be used for the part-time employee even though the budget he submitted to Council shows that cost as $18,000.

After some back and forth discussion, Mayor J. Michael Ross was enthusiastic.

“You have an opportunity to take this to a level it’s never been before and I recognize that. You asked for $33,000, but I think you hear us coming back to $18,500. That’s what we paid (the Historical Society for a Visitor’s Center employee last year) and we didn’t get much from it. But we believe you might just pull that out,” Ross said.

“I appreciate that,” Switzer said.

“How many people joined the Chamber since last year?” Councilman Larry Griffin asked Switzer.

“We had flat growth last year because we took on three events and built this office. It took a lot of time away from recruitment,” Switzer said.

As Council eventually moved on to other agenda items without reaching a consensus on either of Switzer’s funding requests, Utroska called the conversation back to center stage.

“Before we run away from this, are we ok with spending $5,000 for a tourism website for the Chamber? Are we amending this? “

“I don’t know anything about this,” Ross said.

“We don’t need four tourism websites,” Utroska said, referencing a comment he made on May 22, that the Town already had three websites, including one for the Manor and a new $5,000 website the Town will soon unveil.

“(As for) the $5,000 they (Chamber) want for the website,” Parker said, “Chris is thinking we could pay for that as part of advertising and promotions from the state accommodations tax fund. So, that helps us spend those dollars for a good purpose. But if Council doesn’t want to, we don’t have to.”

“If we just go buy this, then we are saying we’re going along with this,” Utroska said. “Why would we want four tourism websites for the town. It is sheer bureaucracy. I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend $5,000 out of this (A-Tax) fund, but I don’t think we should spend $20,445 here, $5,000 here and $15,000 there.

Griffin suggested the Chamber link to the Town’s website, “so you can have a bigger spread,” instead of purchasing another new website.

Utroska suggested that, instead of giving $5,000 to the Chamber for a website to advertise the Town, give the money to the Columbia Visitors Bureau to advertise Blythewood.

“We don’t want to give more money to something we don’t know what we’re going to get in return,” Utroska said. “If we’re going to spend this money, let’s spend it where we’re going to get a bigger bang for our buck.

Griffin agreed.

“I would not give the Chamber $5,000 for another website.” Griffin said.

Parker made one last stand.

“I’m thinking this ($5,000) could be delegated to staff to decide,” Parker said.

“I will be the one to decide where it will be spent, for that much money, Ross said.

The funding request for the Chamber and Visitor’s Center will be further discussed at the next budget workshop at 9 a.m., June 13, at the Manor.