By DOTTY NIST
The Walton County Tourist Development Council’s (TDC) Dec. 3 bimonthly meeting was lengthy, action packed and sometimes contentious.
The meeting took place at the South Walton annex.
TDC actions require final approval by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in public session.
Art Miller of the Institute of Senior Professionals (ISP) gave a report on a study that ISP had been requested to undertake. Miller called it “a helicopter look at the TDC.”
Much of the report was positive. Miller noted that of the state’s 67 counties, Walton County is 41st in population but ranks 10th in bed tax collections. He credited this to higher average daily rates for short-term rental accommodations in south Walton County. Walton County’s bed tax revenue is 50-percent more than Bay County’s, for example, Miller reported, even though Bay County is considerably larger in population.
On the negative side, Miller said the researchers often heard the comment “Why do we need a TDC?” from Walton County residents.
“It’s not a question, it’s a statement;” Miller observed, “in other words ‘get rid of it.’”
He spoke to the need for the effective job done by the TDC and the positive contributions it makes to the community to be communicated better.
Among other suggestions from the study were research on the number of visitors who arrive via U.S. 331 in order to evaluate the need for the Visitor Center, emphasis on attractions apart from the beach, and further expansion of shoulder season promotion.
Jim Bagby, TDC executive director, did a presentation on an audit of the TDC for the period between 2010 and 2012 that was recently completed by the Walton County Clerk of Court and Comptroller’s Office. Bagby said the report had not yet become public record yet but that he was being allowed to provide a summary.
The good news was that there was no finding by the clerk’s office of criminal activity by the TDC. However, Bagby said there had been a finding of incomplete documentation on $121,000 worth of gift cards.
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP furnished funds to Walton County and other Panhandle counties which were used for gift cards provided by TDCs to visitors as a tourism promotion.
Bagby said that, in connection with the cards in question, documentation had included only the name of the person to whom they were issued and, for the majority of the cards, also an email address. However, he noted, for $10,750 worth of the cards there was no documentation at all.
The next most serious deficiency, Bagby reported, was that beginning in 2009 the council had failed to approve a required TDC plan to guide budgeting and had not approved such a plan since that time.
Among other more minor deficiencies, he explained, had been the acceptance by the TDC of a check from the governor at a photo op without authorization to accept the check. Fortunately, funds from the check were not spent prior to the county commission approving its acceptance after the fact, Bagby said.
In addition, there had been a finding of poor process and financial control with the visitor center, he reported. Those have been corrected, Bagby said.
Bagby, who took office as TDC director a few months ago, pledged that under his administration gift cards and checks would be properly documented and handled in the same way as cash.
Bagby also presented a draft TDC plan showing estimated revenue for the year ahead and areas in which it was expected to be spent.
TDC member Amy Wise-Coble observed that the TDC had been doing the equivalent of the plan but not in the same format.
Bagby countered that the plan was more than just an administrative requirement. “If you don’t have this, how are you budgeting?” he asked.
The draft plan was approved.
Also approved was a TDC emergency plan providing for the beach safety officer to serve as the responsible person and for the TDC’s assets to be pooled for the good of the county in an emergency situation due to drowning or beach rescues.
At their Oct. 1 meeting, the TDC had been invited, via a presentation by John Finch of Sunshine Shuttle, to participate in a 30A tram initiative. At that time, there had been a vote to have the TDC’s new Destination Improvement Committee study the proposal and bring a recommendation back to the council.
However, at the Dec. 3 meeting there was no mention of that previous directive, and Tim Pauls, chair of the Friends of 30A, was present to make a pitch for the TDC to help support the pilot tram program, which was being proposed for CR-30A. Pauls said the plan would be for the Friends of 30A’s nonprofit foundation to be the oversight committee for the program.
He said the organization’s understanding was that the TDC would not have been able to provide funding to Finch’s company as a for-profit enterprise.
The estimated cost for the program was between $1 and $1.3 million for the first year with 30 stops and three trams operating for a 180-day period. The TDC was being asked to participate as one of the “tier A” investors at a cost of $86,000, which would be put in escrow for use once the program was initiated.
TDC member Scott Russell noted that the TDC had asked at their last meeting who the parties were who had committee to support the program. He observed that this information had still not been provided.
Russell, along with several other TDC members, expressed the opinion that the tram program should operate not only on CR-30A but along all of Scenic Gulf Drive.
“I think it’s worth a try,” TDC member/District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows said of the tram program. She was also in favor of including Scenic Gulf Drive. Meadows asked if the escrowed money could be returned in the event the program did not go into operation. “Absolutely,” Pauls responded.
Art Miller suggested holding a town hall meeting on the tram possibility.
There were public comments from a local business person, who did not give her name, in favor of the tram program. She emphasized that funding of the program should be fair to all and was in favor of a route to the “outlet mall.” No charge for riders has been proposed, but the business person said she did not think riders would object to paying.
“You can’t exclude us,” Suzanne Harris of Edgewater Condominium told the TDC members. Harris said her Miramar Beach condominium would be willing to pay $500 per unit per season for use of the tram. She urged for a public meeting to be held on the tram possibility and for all parties to be asked “what will you do?” “They all need to pay,” Harris said.
Bill Freeze of the Friends of 30A observed that the tram possibility had been discussed for at least 10 years. He was of the opinion that it was high time to give the program a try, even if it initially operated just on CR-30A.
The pilot program would provide statistical information on whether an ongoing tram program would be viable, Freeze noted. “Let’s find out if this project is going to fly in the pilot program,” he urged.
Meadows’ motion in favor of placing the $86,000 in escrow pending more information on the tram program was approved.
In other action, the TDC approved an expenditure of $60,000 to match an equal amount raised by the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), with all funds to go toward permitting costs for artificial reefs.
Approved, as well, was an expenditure of $23,800 to fund a half-time staff member for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, with the person to work in cooperation with the TDC to develop, schedule and coordinate “ecosploring” opportunities at the Kellogg Nature Center property .
Other action items included a request by Bagby for approval of a reorganization of TDC staff. Showing charts of the current and proposed organization, Bagby explained that the change would align the TDC’s structure more closely with that of the county government. He said it was based on recommendations from the audit and ISP report. The audit had made it clear that there were insufficient staff resources for the TDC. Bagby said, particularly in view of the amount of revenue handled by the organization.
“Is it that broken?” TDC member Richard Veldman asked.
“It’s not functional,” Bagby responded.
The reorganization called for putting all beach-related staff, currently under three separate supervisors, under a director of beach operations. The current marketing manager’s position would be eliminated, and a TDC director of administration position would be created. Bagby told the council members that, had the proposed director of administration been in place during the period covered by the audit, the problem with the gift cards would not have occurred.
The reorganization would result in the addition of one net full-time position and an increase of slightly less than$100,000 in the budget.
“We have got to get somebody with a county business background to help us…we’re an $18.5-million-dollar business,” Bagby said, referring to bed tax collections for the 2012-13 fiscal year. “We have some good people, and they work hard, but we’re not properly resourced,” he summarized.
After Meadows’ motion for approval of the reorganization was not seconded, TDC Chair Tim Norris relinquished the gavel to second. The proposal was approved in a 5-2 vote.
A proposal for the TDC to “financially support community happenings” such as Chautauqua and Christmas Reflections “in minor increments” as part of a “Local Rallying Cry” mission drew concern from Meadows. She called for an attorney general’s opinion to be obtained on specific items on which the TDC could legally expend bed tax revenue outside south Walton County. Her motion to obtain the opinion was approved unanimously.
With the position of TDC treasurer vacant, after some discussion it was determined that Wise-Coble would take that position and that Russell would become TDC secretary. Meadows had been elected treasurer at the Sept. 24 TDC meeting, a meeting at which she was not present. She had previously requested the position of vice chair, but at the September meeting Veldman was selected as vice chair instead on a motion by Wise-Coble. At the TDC meeting the following month, Meadows had declined the treasurer position.
After approval of the secretary and treasurer assignments at the Dec. 3 meeting, Wise-Coble said she was curious as to whether Meadows would be willing to accept any additional responsibility other than being a member of the TDC. Wise-Coble pointed out that the other council members had done so. Meadows responded that she had been willing to serve as vice chair but that she could not take on the position of treasurer. “I serve on many committees, and I don’t feel I have to explain that to you or anyone,” she remarked.
Following some staff reports, the meeting concluded with comments from Dawn Moliterno, who held the position of TDC executive director from May 2010 until her resignation in April 2013. Moliterno came forward during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Regarding the audit report provided earlier by Bagby, Moliterno said she had been anxiously awaiting the final report. She emphasized that there had been no finding of criminal activity. Moliterno said the memorandum of understanding that had governed expenditure of the BP moneys used by the TDC had not been the document that the TDC would liked to have at the time but that “we did the very best we could.” Every bill for the TDC, she continued, goes through the county finance department, and “not a check is out of the TDC.”
The former director wished the TDC well moving forward with the changes taking place in the organization and observed that there is always opportunity for growth and positive change. “In my book this is the closing of a chapter,” Moliterno said.
By DOTTY NIST