By [Concerned Sedona Resident]
(April 13, 2015)
This is the third in a series of articles examining the use of public dollars to promote tourism in Sedona. Last week’s focus examined the return Sedona residents are getting for their money. This week will look issues related to city funding of the Chamber’s Uptown visitor center.
Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Epilogue
Most tourist towns operate a city visitor’s center to provide information about where to go and what to see. Sedona is a notable exception in having “outsourced” this role to the Chamber of Commerce. The city provides $325,000 annually which amounts to 70% of the center’s operating costs. This facility functions “in lieu” of the city running it’s own. Just like other funding provided to the Chamber, it all seemed like a good idea 20 years ago. That was before discrimination and center mismanagement became issues.
Discrimination between businesses that are Chamber of Commerce members and those that are not has been ongoing since city funding began 20 years ago. It has increased proportionally over the years as the percentage of Sedona businesses that belong to the Chamber has dropped steadily. Most businesses in Sedona pay some part of the tax money used to operate the center. This creates an obligation to insure that all tax-paying businesses are represented fairly. Such is not the case. Only Chamber-member businesses are benefitted by the center. Visitors are directed only to those businesses, including ones in neighboring cities like Cottonwood and Flagstaff (who do not pay our city taxes and thus don’t fund the center) while local businesses that are not Chamber members (but who do pay Sedona taxes) are ignored.
Discriminatory use of public tax money by a special interest organization to the exclusive benefit of its members is unfair if not illegal. Referring visitors to businesses outside Sedona while ignoring similar ones within the city costs the city tax dollars and compounds the unfairness. Sedona City Council members are well aware of the problem but have, to date, made no serious efforts to correct it due to Chamber political pressure. The Chamber has also resisted city staff urgings to correct this situation. Former Councilor Barbara Litrell pressed Chamber CEO Jennifer Wesselhoff on the issue at a City Council meeting on October 28, 2014. Wesselhoff strongly opposed providing equal visitor center support to all local business claiming it would be “too much work.” Litrell did not follow up.
If the city were using the same tax money to operate a visitor center, as other tourism-focused Arizona cities do, it would be prohibited from discriminating against any tax-paying, city-based businesses. Requiring city businesses to become a member of a special interest non-profit organization in order to gain equal benefits would be unthinkable.
Actually much of the same issue applies to the Chamber’s city-financed destination marketing activities. Articles, advertising, publications and other promotions, paid for with public money derived from Sedona businesses, list only those that are Chamber members. Chamber web sites, created and maintained with public tax funding, also reference only Chamber-members. Businesses located outside the city get a major advertising windfall paid for by those located within the city because the Chamber is a regional organization and membership is not confined to Sedona city limits. It’s a play-without-pay subsidy in terms of city tax funding. Outside businesses get an additional competitive edge by not having to include city sales or bed tax in their pricing.
The current city contract with the Chamber seeks to address this issue by requiring the Chamber to “establish a membership fee structure that assesses every Tourism Bureau member outside of the city limits at a higher rate than in-city members.” It further requires that “members outside the city limits pay increased fees for leads generated by the (Chamber)” and that the Chamber come back to the Council “with the new fee structure and implementation timeline for the new fees by Nov 15, 2014.”
Chamber representatives appeared before the Council on October 28, 2014 with only vague descriptions of plans to revise Chamber membership fees. No further dates or timelines were set for completion of that requirement or for Council review of the results. Meanwhile, Chamber members outside the city are charged a mere $50 annually for the $1.3 million advertising benefit they get from public funds used to sell Sedona. Lodging members are charged $14 per room to belong to a specific “leads” service that may amount to upwards of $3,000 in fees annually for some hotels.
Whether under this old fee structure or some new one, nothing in the city contract directs this extra fee money back to reimburse the city or requires its use in tourism promotion. Essentially the Chamber is free to use this extra money leveraged as a result of tax-funded promotions for any Chamber purpose it chooses including increasing salaries, hiring new staff and upgrading its offices and facilities. Again, public tax money is being used to benefit for a private organization without any apparent concern from city staff or City Council.
The Chamber provided no information on the basis used to calculate fairness of outside-the-city charges and none of the Council members asked that obvious question. Former Council member Mike Ward did express concern that the $50 was “way too little” for the benefit received but gave up pursuing the issue indicating that he felt none of the other Council members cared anyway.
Disparity of numbers between businesses that are Chamber members and those that are not is very large. The City licenses over 2,200 businesses in Sedona. With exception of a relatively small number that are exempt, all businesses located in the city limits pay taxes into the city’s General Fund used to finance Chamber visitor center operations. However, fewer than 300 businesses physically located in the Sedona city limits are Chamber members.
The Chamber regularly represents itself to the City Council and others as having “over one thousand” members. This exaggeration has gone on for years and comes from two major deceptive practices. First, the Chamber often lists the same business simultaneously in a number of different business categories. By adding up all the category totals and ignoring the duplication, they arrive at a “membership” figure. The second source of inflated numbers comes from including all members that have a Sedona area or Sedona post office zip code, even though a number of them are actually located outside city limits. While a business may pay a fee for being listed in multiple categories in Chamber promotional materials, in reality it is still just one business. Only one of every 6 businesses physically located in Sedona belong to the Chamber of Commerce.
Exaggerated membership numbers are not the only inflated Chamber figures put out in the process of selling Sedona and securing public tax funding. The number of visitors served in the Uptown visitor center also gets a generous boost. Tourists using the Center are recorded automatically by counters on both doors, resulting in visitors (and staff) being tabulated going both ways. Workers at the center are urged to “keep the number up,” by the Chamber main office. This is apparently a consistent practice of enhancing already inflated figures. Recently, when the automatic door counters broke down, center workers were required to manually count visitors. Counts dropped to barely one third of the usual numbers being reported.
At “busy” times around holidays and school breaks, the center often reports “1,000 visitor days.” Handling that many people would require each of the volunteers working the visitor service counter to assist almost 40 people per hour. This is a near impossibility given the usual length of time required to meet the needs of the average visitor. It is also a near physical impossibility to simply move 1,000 people through the center in a 9 hour work day, casting further doubt on Chamber-provided visitor numbers.
The visitor center is operated with a mixture of paid staff and volunteers. There are four paid employees, at least two of whom are physically at the center at all times. In addition, there are usually three volunteers who do virtually all of the visitor information services. Paid staff are the only ones allowed to handle money for things like Red Rock Passes and other products. They do not help at the service counter. Investigations reveal that these paid staff spend large amounts of time with virtually nothing to do except play games on their cell phones. The employees also wonder outdoors and back in regularly, artificially raising the “visitor” count.
One would expect center employees to be Sedona residents since the city pays for most of visitor center operations. Again that is not the case. Paid staff are hired from as far away as Flagstaff – as though there were no Sedona residents who would welcome the job. The city turns a blind eye to this issue as well.
In addition, while the City funds 70% of center operations, hardly anyone knows it. The sign on the Center says “Sedona Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information.” The city gets no credit for paying a major chunk of the bill. Most volunteers working at the center are unaware of the city’s funding role. It is never mentioned in their training and kept quietly hidden during their service.
Discrimination against most taxpaying Sedona businesses and mismanagement of the center via overstaffing with paid employees, criticizing volunteers who refer a visitor to a local business that is not a Chamber member and regular inflation of visitor numbers (to make it look like the city is getting more for its money) have been the norm for some time. Few Council members or city staff ever venture near the center to find out how it is being operated and what the city is really getting for its $325,000 in public money. Out of sight, out of mind.
Next week: Part 4 Is city funding of the Chamber of Commerce legal?
(Over) Selling Sedona: Decision Points
How Do They Measure Up? Part 1 • Part 2
The Fallacy of Transit
Selling Sedona – One Year Later: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3
Selling Sedona, 2015: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Epilogue
I’m still rather vexed that this is written anonymously and that Sedona.biz continues to allow it after many complaints. This policy/tactic lends itself to suspicion.
Who is this writer? Where did he/she get this information? What sort of factual reporting will take place to make sure these opinion pieces have any truth to them? Publishing this type of piece anonymously is a bad idea.
A couple of earlier comments made reference to this series of articles as being written by “she” or “her.” As having written many articles myself regarding the City of Sedona and their funding to the regional of Chamber of Commerce, this is to go on record that my articles have exclusively appeared on Sedona Eye, another online publication unrelated to Sedona.Biz.
Although I personally must compliment the anonymous source who has so thoroughly researched the subject, I must also agree with John Balla and John Neville that by not disclosing the name of the author it considerably diminishes credibility of the endeavor.
Acknowledging that all comments to Sedona Eye in keeping with the policy set by Sedona Eye Publisher/Editor are made public with or without proper identification, to my knowledge there has never been a feature article, letter to the editor, or opinion submission published without adequate identification.
Because I have been approached due to confusion with the two publications it will be most helpful if Steve DeVol, Publisher/Editor of Sedona.Biz, will share my comment with his readers. Thank you.
(Ms.) Eddie S. Maddock
The only reason people want this person ID is so they can attack them into submission. That’s the way the Chamber, the City and Sedona 30 operate. I have been a Sedona Chamber member and Tourism bureau member for 10 years. The practices of the City and Chamber should be formally investigated and board leadership held accountable. The numbers and tactics don’t lie. Shameful, unethical and illegal. I pay to play but many businesses cannot. I say keep exposing the truth. I could care less who wrote it. Kudos to the author!
Agree, agree and fully AGREE!
Absolutely agree! Also make note that the chamber only supports those in the UPTOWN area and west Sedona and VOC isn’t mentioned at all. Furthermore, the Spiritual Metaphyisical group has been run by the same people for nearly 15 years – the owners of Angel Valley – it’s quite the fiefdom. It would be nice to have a chamber that represents every business in Sedona.
Well written and clearly well researched. As a long time resident and business owner within the city limits I can concur with most everything written in this article. I am NOT the author of this article. I have researched and personally audited the Chamber membership composition therefore I know all about the counts being inflated and flat out false. I reported this to the last city council, city manager, and the chamber. No one wanted to hear it. I even offer to do the report-count for Jennifer as she said “It’s too difficult” She declined.
It is great to give everyone their own voice without backlash. I have written and spoken to city staff, city council, and Jennifer from the chamber on many of these issues. No one wanted to hear it. In fact I was labeled, called names, and boycotted for speaking up. I was even told “this is how we do it in Sedona” “There is a front door and a back door” Labeled a “negative” “extreme” and have had many lies spread around town about me. I have been made to feel unwelcome and unwanted for speaking the truth even though I have contributed to the sales tax within the city limits of Sedona. I have even volunteered for the Sedona Wedding Association unpaid for close to twenty years. This business group takes no funding from the city of Sedona.
By speaking up, I am a unwanted a second class citizen and business for the city of Sedona as I refuse to endorse this behavior or join in the chamber. This could be one of the reasons why this article is being written as a “Concerned Sedona Resident” as the backlash is deeply embedded in Sedona. I have personally seen this. Businesses, family members get hurt when one speaks up using their real name.
I am looking forward to the next portion and I am praying that those business owners, managers and citizens will gain courage to take your city back by letting everyone know how you feel. United you have strength.This is important to the positive growth of Sedona.
No business owner I know would ever give up their rights and vote to a regional chamber of commerce. The city should be working together (not paying a regional business trade organization) with the businesses as ONE team. Directly professionally, and transparent, we don’t need a “union” or middleman. Businesses need to pay for their own expenses.
Thank you for writing this. It is NOT my article.
Donna Joy Varney
I have a friend, a Sedona resident, who has been subjected to draconian measures waged by the city. So I do understand why someone would wish to write anonymously. That being said, I still feel it’s irresponsible for both publisher and author, even cowardice. These half measures could potentially increase the resolve of those (or some) for which this assailment is directed.
Agree with you Donna and thank you for your response.
It amazes me that the incompetence, if not corruption, that we seem now to accept as the norm for our Federal government may well be part of our local government! Perhaps this is just par for “representative government”. Perhaps rural Vermonters have the best idea for local government, having retained from Colonial times truly democratic Town Meetings, where residents of the town gather once a year and act as a legislative body, voting on operating budgets, laws, and other matters for the community’s operation over the following 12 months. Town staff then implements those decisions during the rest of the year. We foolishly delegate that power to our City Council and look what we get!
As for the anguish expressed over the anonymous author of this intelligent series, I fail to see how a name would or should add or subtract any credibility to the article. Bernie Madoff had and used his name, but that fact did not much benefit his investors. If there are holes in the facts or the logic in this series, why has no one responded to dispute any single statement or fact contained therein?
My question is what do the honest, tax-paying, mind-their-own-business residents and tax payers of the City of Sedona do in response to this fiscal abuse and irresponsibility we have apparently been taking at the hands of our elected City government? Is a ballot initiative possible on the local level, and is the silent majority fed up enough to enact change? I truly dislike politics and prefer a quiet life. I mostly even refuse to read the local Sedona paper, which my wife subscribes to, because it only frustrates me to see the direction Sedona is moving in. It may be getting close to my last chance, however, to change things or find a new place to live after 14 pleasant years in Sedona.
As an aside, I watched the Community Plan take shape a few years ago as it went through numerous community meetings, surveys, mailers, etc., and I dutifully tried to stay informed and participate. As I recall, the citizens were presented with several alternatives of major focus such as Environment, Community and Tourism. I am going from memory here, so even though my name is on this comment you may want to verify the exact history. I recall that Tourism received the lowest number of votes in the final polling. It is interesting that tourism ended up a very large part of every one of the other options! Think what the traffic and the impacts residents would be left to mitigate on their own would be like today if the Tourism option had been adopted! Who is running this show?
@Rob Bonner – You wrote (regarding Community Plan process) -“I recall that Tourism received the lowest number of votes in the final polling. It is interesting that tourism ended up a very large part of every one of the other options!”
Easy answer: Tourists are the supposed bain of our existence yet they Continue to pay our way. If that concept had been acknowledged right at the beginning of the planning process and then worked through to find a middle ground and a realistic list of affordable wants or needs – well, that might have been progress.
Yet instead what happened was Chamber/Lodging/Community Plan Committee/Entitlement/euphoric (money is of not object) take over and I suspect the next strong arm of all of them will be Property Taxes and/or Special District taxes…instead of any of them getting a grip that this is a very small town with limited income – and one without Property Taxes.
You wonder if this is why the city’s population did not increase during the last census, unlike Arizona that increased by 10%. Could the constant push for more tourists be disenfranchising the residents?
I mentioned earlier the vilification of Cliff Hamilton when he ran for mayor. He challenged the Chamber of Commerce in the City Council Chambers and then campaigned on holding the Chamber of Commerce accountable and was crucified by certain entities in this city.
Why in a town of 9000 would ANYONE want to identify themselves and become subject to the same attacks? I must concur with a commentor above, if these allegations are NOT accurate, then where is the hard documentation from the Chamber that was requested by Litrell and Ward that was sidestepped by the Chamber and ignored by the other Council members at that time?
I was as were many others intimately involved in the SR179 project, and had to deal with the phoney 4 million a year tourist number provided by the Chamber. There was an element in town that wanted a four lane highway so property along SR179 could be zoned commercial from the entrance of our city to the “Y”. Coincidence? This has been going on for a very long time. Way to cosy.
I am sure eventually we will know who anonymous is. But leave that for later. For now…keep writing.
Maybe the city needs to step up under the control and guidance of the new council and do what other cities do…manage our visitor center. Stop the cronyism.
My advice to the Chamber, no more generalities and support and refer tourists to our businesses. No more smoke and mirrors. If there is an issue here that is false, be prepared with hard documented facts. This is tax money your are receiving and we are all tired of the lack of transparency in government.
I am delighted to see so many thoughtful and insightful comments on this thread. Yes, there are two fundamental issues being debated in parallel here: 1) the “anonymous” polemic; and, 2) the merits of the content for which there are many.
I have my own personal story about interactions with the Chamber, both as a potential subcontractor and as a Chamber member (last year). Perhaps I’ll share them as a separate article, and if I do, I will not hide behind anonymity because I refuse to live in fear. But for now, I think there’s already plenty of “meat on the bone” in this thread.
All the best,
You bring up another important factor. I would love to read about your experience. The subcontractor issue is such a big can of worms. Those supporting funding many times gets special benefits including a subcontract. The marketing group that the Chamber hired gave money to the champaign of at least one candidate. I look forward to seeing your article.
Donna Joy Varney
Players haven’t changed – just topics and locations and how money is spent etc.
I unfortunately have to concur with the ineffectiveness of the Chamber of Commerce. Which is why I declined to join after researching it for awhile. I’d be happy to see my tax dollars going somewhere a more helpful to the majority of residents in this city.
Prggy, let’s hope the council reads this. Up to th he voter to let the council lnow our feelings.
Unfortunately I have my own experience of the ineffectiveness of the Chamber. For my life I can’t understand why my tax dollars are used to support it to this extent.
And, if the facts in the letters are erroneous, would those who feel this to be so please dispute them with FACTS? I really don’t care who wrote the article OR who disputes it. I’d like to learn the facts of the situation.
And there the entire issue was spoken in very few words: doesn’t matter who wrote it…what matters are the FACTS!
If you have a Town Hall meeting you will be able to get channel 5 and other major media outlets to cover it. This is in response to Rob Bonner’s article.