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Tourism Drama

Jefferson County, Ind., tourism treasurer suspended pending hearing

Madison City Council to explore mishandling
of grant application review process

 



(January 2021)
Read previous Don Ward columns!


Don Ward

(January 2021) – The saga between the two tourism boards in Madison, Ind., continues with the latest step occurring when the treasurer for the Jefferson County Board of Tourism (JCBT) was suspended by the Madison City Council, which appointed her.
The council voted 5-2 at its Dec. 8 regular meeting to suspend Tami Hagemier until the outcome of a hearing that has been set to explore allegations against her of mismanagement of a state grant selection process. A decision on her future on the board could be settled during the hearing, which the council plans to hold on the matter prior to its next meeting, set for Dec. 22.
The JCBT is established by state statute to receive and distribute innkeepers’ taxes. Most of the money is distributed annually to VisitMadison Inc. to operate the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center, pay its employees and market events designed to promote tourism. But in recent months, expenditures by VMI has been called into question in wake of the significant losses in innkeepers taxes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. JCBT members also have been debating how much to give VMI for its 2021 operational and marketing budgets.
Hagemier’s suspension couldn’t come at a worse time, since the JCBT was scheduled to approve the VMI 2021 budget at its December meeting, which is usually held the last Monday of each month. At November’s JCBT meeting, the group decided to hold a work session prior to its next regular meeting to evaluate the VMI budget request, which is significantly less than in past years due to 2020 revenue losses. No date had been set for the work session at press time (Dec. 18).

Lucy Dattilo

Dattilo

Meantime, Jefferson County (Ind.) Commissioners are mulling their next move in administering a $300,000 federal COVID-19 Response Grant Program after they were informed at their Dec. 3 meeting that the vetting and scoring of the applicants had been compromised.
Despite the county commission issuing a Sept. 21 press release announcing the names of the 12 grant recipients, no money has yet been distributed 2½ months later because in the days following the announcement, an error in the scoring of applicants was discovered and self-reported to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), according to VisitMadison Inc. Executive Director Tawana Thomas and VMI Board President Lucy Dattilo.
VMI is a partner in the program, along with OCRA, the county commission and the JCBT. VMI was charged with overseeing the program, but a separate committee was formed to review and score the applicants. VMI staff member Holly Gibson served as the VMI grant writer and VMI’s Tiffini Poling served as the loan manager. JCBT treasurer Hagemier also oversaw the program with Gibson and Poling. In the days following the Sept. 21 announcement, Gibson discovered and reported the error to Dattilo and Thomas.
The error has since been rectified by VMI staff members and was resubmitted to OCRA, which later approved distributing the funds, Dattilo told the commissioners. The next step is for the commissioners to obtain signatures by each grant recipient on the loan agreements before distributing the money.
During the December meeting, Commission President David Bramer appeared frustrated over why the error was not discovered until after the press release had been issued. He further stated that the commissioners will have to wait and see what they will do moving forward.
“We’ll take this under consideration,” Bramer said. “I’m not sure that we’ll want to send out any loan agreements just yet because we’ve already made a statement … that we’re going to provide funds to the people that were selected.”

Thomas

At the meeting, Thomas read a three-page statement to explain what happened with the grant application scoring and how VMI set about correcting the errors. Thomas explained that Hagemier instructed Gibson to cut off the application process on Sept. 14, even though the application deadline had been set for Sept. 18. Three additional applications were received on Sept. 18, but Hagemier instructed Gibson to issue the press release listing the 12 grant awards.
Gibson later discovered errors in the handling of the scoring of applicants, so VMI met with its OCRA liaison Jennifer Voris on Oct 7 to ask for guidance.
Thomas said that in that meeting between Gibson, Voris and herself, “it was identified that Tami Hagemier mismanaged the process by which the applicants were to be scored. While Tiffini Poling and Holly Gibson should have vetted the applications prior to them being reviewed by the loan selection committee, Tami Hagemier personally collected them, scored them and reviewed them with non-approved loan selection committee members for final acceptance.”
Hagemier met with non-approved loan selection committee members that included Curtis Chatham, Nancy Crisp and Wendy Lawson only to view the scores of the applicants, Thomas said, but they did not participate in the scoring itself.
“It was brought to VisitMadison’s attention that the original loan selection committee members (which included Bill Barnes, Tara Cox, Matt Wirth, Ellie Bright and Tracy Wynn), were never contacted by Tami Hagemier to serve on the committee and therefore that specific information submitted to OCRA was incorrect. It was also determined that signatures had been prematurely obtained by Tami Hagemier from commissioners Bramer, (Robert) Little, and (Ron) Lee along with Holly Gibson after incomplete and incorrect scoring information was provided to them.”
As a result of the information provided, Voris instructed VMI to also score those last three applications and include them in the program. As a result, not all of the grant recipients will receive the full $25,000 each, Dattilo said at the meeting.
Bramer again asked why the VMI staff had not informed the commission of the error until Oct. 8, and Dattilo explained that they needed some time to gather information before jumping to conclusions.
Thomas said Hagemier never contacted the original members of the committee to serve, “therefore making information submitted to OCRA incorrect.” VMI staff and Voris also determined that signatures had been prematurely signed by commissioners and Gibson after alleged “incomplete and incorrect” scoring information was provided to them, she said.
Near the end of the statement that Thomas read to the commissioners, she said VMI would no longer continue as a partner in future rounds of this Revolving Loan program, citing a lack of staff to participate. Thomas said all documents related to the program will be turned over to the commission.
Hagemier and Gibson in April applied on behalf of Jefferson County to take part in the state tourism grant program. As a result, Jefferson County was selected as one of 42 Indiana counties to receive $250,000 in grant money for low interest loans up to $25,000 for small businesses to support low to moderate income employees. The grant was then matched by the commission with an additional $50,000 to enable the program to award $25,000 to each recipient.
The Sept. 21 press release named the following businesses to receive the grants: The Keepsake Consignment, Darrell’s Tire and Alignment, Cozy Acres Golf Complex, Brenda Shropshire, Seth Bickis, Clifty Garden Center, John and Lori Heitz, Kirsten Quick, Lee’s Locksmith Service, Steven Bickis, Attic to Basement-Sugar on Main and Midwest Gym Supply.

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In other actions, VisitMadison Inc. sent out a letter in early December to all five family owned, southern Indiana wineries informing them that VMI would no longer manage the Indiana Wine Trail. VMI has managed the program for the past 12 years.
“Hopefully, one of the other counties will pick it up,” Dattilo said.
The Indiana Wine Trail is a coalition of the eight wineries and promotes three annual events – the Spring in the Valley event in April, Artisan Weekend in July and Fall Haul in November. These events promote giveaways and sales specials at the wineries in an effort to get the public to visit their locations. The eight wineries include Lanthier Winery in Jefferson County, Ridge Winery in Switzerland County, Ertel Cellars in Ripley County, Holtkamp Winery in Dearborn County and Stream Cliff Farm Restaurant & Winery in Jennings County.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.


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