City officials have funneled tens of thousands of dollars into the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce as part of an agreement dating back to 1987, but elected leaders admit the provisions of the contract have not been met recently.
Voters approved the city’s collection of a hotel-motel tax nearly 27 years ago. The vote created a 4 percent excise tax on rental receipts paid by those who stayed at local hotels or motels.
City coffers collect the entire tax, and each month, 97 percent of the money is set aside for the Chamber of Commerce, with the city keeping 3 percent as an “administrative” fee.
Under the measure, the chamber must use the tax funds “exclusively for tourism development in the city of Tahlequah.” City ordinances also established a contract between the city and chamber, to be extended each fiscal year, so the chamber would act as an “agent of the city,” thus making it a “quasi-governmental agency.”
At the end of its fiscal years, chamber officials are supposed to submit to the city council a detailed account of expenses from the hotel-motel funds. The chamber is also required to make an annual report of its disbursements related to the hotel-motel tax, and to submit its proposed budget for the coming year, after the document is formulated by the chamber’s executive director, president and president-elect.
But sitting members of the city council can’t remember the last time they saw any of those documents from the chamber.
“I do not recall them in the past two or three years, since I’ve been mayor, no,” Mayor Jason Nichols said.
Nichols said the contract between the city and chamber was historically handled “internally,” and was a self-renewing agreement.
“Once those things stopped happening – I don’t know when that happened. I guess it was not picked up by [city] staff,” Nichols said. “I look at the invoices [the chamber] sends to us, and they do provide a pretty detailed set of expenditures, but I don’t remember those [contract requirements] coming to us on the council.”
Ward 4 Councilor Linda Spyres said former chamber Executive Director David Moore would provide the city with invoices for hotel-motel tax expenditures, but he didn’t do so through the council.
“When I was on the chamber board and the tourism board, those things were submitted to the city,” Spyres said.
She suggested Nichols should be responsible for ensuring the council sees the items required of the chamber. She also believes the city’s yearly audit should have revealed any problems.
“We do not micromanage,” Spyres said. “It really doesn’t come across our desks.”
But Spyres concedes the council “probably dropped the ball as much as the chamber.”
“I don’t think it will happen again,” she said.
Ward 1 Councilor Diane Weston also admitted last week that she doesn’t recall seeing “any specific documents regarding the chamber budget and/or expenditures.”
“As city councilors, we unfortunately are not capable of knowing every detail of every department and entity within the city,” said Weston.
“Since we do not physically work at the city offices on a daily basis, we often only know what is presented to us by others. Our goal is to hire reputable and capable individuals whom we trust and who will provide us with all required documentation and information that is relevant to the city.”
Weston said investigations often result in a heightened awareness of policies and regulations.
“Because the Chamber of Commerce has a board who oversees the management of the chamber, I simply presumed that the required documentation was being presented as protocol dictated,” said Weston.
“If we, as councilors, are not provided with the information, we have no way of knowing management practices. However, this is not an excuse, as we, the city’s leaders, are ultimately responsible for the taxpayers’ money.”
Weston promised the city will work with investigators and try to restore trust with the chamber members and citizens of Tahlequah.
“We look forward to closure and resolution soon,” said Weston.
Nichols suggested the council will consider changing its policy, if necessary, to ensure these documents appear in front of the board.