Put me down as one who was proud of the way the Hamilton County Commission met with leaders of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitor’s Bureau last Wednesday. Both sides were civil, listened to what the other had to say, and set a standard for when political factions “agree to disagree.” But the push-me-pull-you isn’t over by a long shot and the guess here is the CVB will lose up to a half of the hotel-motel tax money before the end of May.
Right now Resolution 207-27 appropriates all the “tourist tax” to the CVB but the resolution will be amended in several weeks and another resolution – one that calls for every entity that is funded by more than 30 percent with taxpayer money to be subject to audits and strict scrutiny.
A bill sponsored by Todd Gardenhire in the State Senate that would make the CVB subject to a state audit passed in the Senate on Monday and the companion bill in the House, pushed by Mike Carter, is expected to clear on Wednesday. Gardenhire met with Doak to voice concerns he had several weeks ago and was clearly less than pleased with the outcome. “I feel anytime we can we ought to fix what’s wrong. There needs to be more oversight and accountability. I don’t have a vendetta or any grudge,” Gardenhire said, “but I have a responsibility to the people of this state.”
When CVB CEO Bob Doak appeared before the County Commission last week he brought three of his executive board members to help him guard an unrestricted cash stash of over $7 million in tax money. The arguments that were presented were lame, with one saying he would have had “second thoughts” on a $60 million investment had he known the CVB coffers would be raided. Please, anybody who makes a $60 million investment doesn’t even think about the visitor’s bureau – they already realize they are saddling a fine horse. Five hotels are being built in the downtown area, for heaven’s sake.
Another – Mike Steele -- got up and called the embattled Doak “the finest person he’s ever known.” But – wait -- nobody has questioned Doak’s integrity, other than wonder why he must hire “advisors” and PR firms when he’s got far better minds on his executive committee. Doak also ordered lawyer Phil Whitaker to send the commission a letter promising legal action if they revealed any of the CVB’s mystical actions. Anybody dumb enough to call for a commission that funds them with $7+ million to be threatened is immediately subject to public scrutiny and CVB credibility plummeted in the wake of the embarrassing letter.
Doak claims if he allows the media and the public to see his operating statements and his budget it may cause “another city with that public knowledge to under-bid us.” Yet the majority of the public, the media and the commissioners themselves don’t believe that. I dare say the public and the media are not prohibited from examining the spending patterns of any other public tourism organization anywhere in America. Governance today is built on transparency and as long as Doak hides his business figures, the overwhelming sentiment is “what else is he hiding?”
Late last year there were private talks of building a “Chattanooga sports complex” next to The Howard School on South Market Street. The site location is superb, the need easy to demonstrate and the return-on-investment for the city believed to be good. The idea was to take a substantial share of the CVB tax receipts to fund a 15-year bond.
County Commissioner Greg Beck got City Mayor Andy Berke and County Mayor Jim Coppinger excited (“We can finally have a sanctioned track meet in the city!”) but Doak loused the deal when he insisted he be in “total control” of the project. “That would have been a nightmare,” said one on the ad hoc committee. “A big part of the operations plan would have been that Doak not be involved in any way.”
The waters sullied and the plan on life support, the logical move was for the County Commission to “take the money rather than ask for it,” said an insider. “After all, it is taxpayer money and the commissioners are accountable to the people; Doak is accountable to no one. And, as you’ve seen, Doak spends more on travel than Trump!”
The CVB invited the county commissioners to look at the same books they refuse to share with the media and public. Commissioner Tim Boyd called the offer “laughable … you’ve got to know where to look and, once you do, it is hard for the CVB to convince me our hotel/motel-tax is being put to the best use.
“Some people are under the impression I want to do away with the CVB. I’ve been criticized for asking what I think are good questions and I believe we need to bring the bureau in line with the other departments in Hamilton County government. We need a convention and visitor’s bureau,” added Boyd, “but it must be reasonable.”
Right now Boyd says he is thinking the commission should withhold “around 35-to-40 percent” of the tourist tax. “That would enable us to build a sports complex that a lot of our middle and high schools could use. Our schools are in bad shape, but our sports venues are even worse. East Ridge is going to do great things at the high school after taking over the athletic facilities. They are going to be classy, but the reason we did it was because the schools have no money.”
From comments last week, Commissioner Joe Graham said he would keep the CVB “fully funded” while Warren Mackey openly praised Doak’s efforts, but other commissioners were still miffed. Greg Beck obviously wants the stadium project and others say they want to inspect the CVB books.
Boyd says, “A sports facility would take an enormous strain off some schools that aren’t blessed with a city like East Ridge. The CVB will do just fine going back to a budget like it had five years ago. People need to listen to what Mayor Coppinger said – there are needs all across our county we must consider.”
When the budget talks begin in June, you can bet there will be quite a conversation, but with the county’s bare-bones budget, watch for the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to return to “the real world.”