(February 2021) – The two tourism boards in Madison, Ind., on Jan. 25 took the first steps toward addressing several issues that include setting budgets for 2021 and finding a way forward to temporarily fund basic tourism operations in the wake of a pandemic. The VisitMadison Inc. (VMI) board held its monthly meeting that Monday morning, and the Jefferson County Board of Tourism (JCBT) held its monthly meeting later than night in what lasted nearly three hours.
In the morning, bookkeeper Tiffini Poling reported to the VMI board that if the JCBT did not appropriate any money to VMI soon, then it would be broke by mid-March, meaning the payment of salaries and tourism operations would cease. But by the end of the day, the JCBT voted unanimously to give VMI enough money to fund its January and February operations (including salaries) and a small amount of money for marketing for the month of February. It also approved paying all but one of the remaining marketing commitments from 2020 that had been languishing since it last met in November.
But getting from point A to point B did not come easy.
The JCBT was established by state statue to receive innkeepers’ taxes and then disperse the money. In past years, the bulk of that money has been provided to the VMI board to pay salaries, operate the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center, plan and direct festivals and support the organizers of other events in the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic last year significantly impacted tourism in Jefferson County, Ind., like it did all across the country. As a result, the VMI budget request submitted to the JCBT in December 2020 was 35 percent less than what had been approved at the outset of 2020, according to VMI Executive Director Tawana Thomas.
By comparison, the JCBT in December 2019 approved a 2020 tourism budget of $295,323 plus an additional $189,456 for marketing. After enduring a year of COVID-19 and having its marketing budget frozen in late October by the JCBT, the VMI board this past December approved a budget request for 2021 of $170,000 for operations and $110,700 for marketing. That request was submitted in December to the JCBT.
After no action was taken by the JCBT for nearly three months in terms of funding the VMI, and having frozen its marketing expenditures indefinitely right before the holiday season, the tension was building for the JCBT to finally act. Fortunately, Jefferson County experienced a record in innkeepers’ tax revenues in November of more than $67,000, perhaps making the decision easier for the JCBT to move forward.
But ironing out the final motion to fund VMI for January and February came after more than two hours of debate by six JCBT members to address several issues. The board did not even meet in December, just days after its treasurer, Tami Hagemier, had been suspended by the Madison City Council, which had appointed her. Hagemier’s suspension resulted from her alleged mishandling of a state grant application process to award $250,000 to 12 local businesses. The suspension was made pending a hearing by the council, which has yet to be held.
Meantime, the JCBT at its January meeting voted on new officers. In a slate of officers nominated by Trevor Crafton, the board voted to have current president David Bramer continue in that role, with Crafton as vice president, Nancy Crisp as treasurer and Wendy Lawson as secretary. Other board members include Todd Boone and Curtis Chatham.
Before tackling the budget request for VMI, the JCBT discussed its concerns over VMI staff members using board-issued credit cards for personal expenses, then reimbursing the board for the amounts later. Earlier in the day, the VMI board voted to approve a new credit card policy that eliminated the use of VMI credit cards for personal use. In addition, the new policy required staff members to fill out forms that detailed the purpose and circumstances of each purchase. The JCBT members appeared pleased with the new policy, but Boone offered to provide to VMI additional ways to document the purchases even further.
A long discussion then ensued about the delinquency by the VMI in the required audit reports to the State Board of Accounts. Jefferson County, Ind., resident Warren Auxier addressed the board to provide the results of his own research of the expenditures and audits of VMI in recent years.
Auxier said he obtained records of credit card and other expenses by VMI staff in 2018, and that all the receipts were there and seemed in order. But he said the required state-mandated audits were “past due.” Following Auxier’s remarks, the JCBT members asked Thomas to provide a response from the VMI accountant for the delay.
Finally, the JCBT members addressed the need for a timeline to negotiate and sign the 2021 contract for funding VMI’s operations and marketing budget. Auxier noted that VMI had about $500,000 in CDs and savings attributed to three events – Madison Ribberfest, Madison Chautauqua and the Nights Before Christmas Candlelight Tour of Homes. Auxier said these funds belonged to VMI, even though they may have been earned and dedicated to use as a “rainy day fund” for those events.
Crisp, who earlier commended VMI for operating the past three months on a very limited budget, asked Thomas if she had the authority to use those funds to pay operational expenses. Thomas said she had “absolutely no authority” to do so, and that it would be a board decision.
Auxier insisted that the board had absolute authority to access those accounts. “It may get some pushback from those committee volunteers, but they chose not to establish their own entity and operate under their own federal tax ID number and instead leave it to VisitMadison to manage it in order to use their nonprofit status (and their insurance policy). The VisitMadison tax ID is the only one that exists, so the VMI board is the only real legal authority to use those dollars.”
Crisp opened a discussion about VMI’s outstanding marketing invoices from 2020 totaling $8,437 that needed to be settled. She and Crafton urged the payment of those invoices – “as a good partner to VMI” – because of its marketing budget obligation made to VMI a year earlier. But none of the board members wanted to pay the lone invoice of $2,100 for a billboard mounted in an industrial area near I-71 in Carrollton, Ky. After much discussion, a motion was made and approved for $6,367 to pay those invoices, except for the billboard.
The board then unanimously voted to fund the VMI’s own budget request for January and February only, a total of $28,232 to pay salaries and operations. Then the board took up the VMI request for marketing. Most agreed that funding marketing was important to help promote Madison to tourists as a destination and to keep “heads in beds” for much-needed innkeepers’ tax revenues. But this debate devolved into a discussion about controlling or pre-approving how the marketing money would be spent.
Chatham said he would not vote to give VMI any marketing money unless he knew in advance for what it would be used. Boone reminded him of discussions by the board in earlier meetings where they agreed they would not try to micro-manage VMI’s decisions on marketing and to “leave it to the marketing professionals.”
“But what you are suggesting is doing exactly that – it’s getting down in the weeds (of micro-management),” Boone said. “As an innkeeper here, I see the effect from marketing on putting heads in beds, so we need to give them some money to keep marketing going.”
Boone noted that the proposed amount to fund marketing for February “is a 48 percent reduction from last year.”
After Boone rephrased his motion, and following discussion by Bramer, Crisp and Lawson about the need to continue funding marketing efforts, Chatham relented and voted with the others in a unanimous vote to give VMI $9,225 for marketing for the month of February. That amount represented one month’s worth of the $110,700 in marketing money that VMI had originally requested for 2021.
But that vote came with the caveat proposed by Boone – and supported by Bramer – to request that VMI staff provide to them within a week a list of marketing activities to be funded with the money. Bramer added that they should emphasize funding of digital marketing efforts, although he agreed to leave the ultimate decisions up to the VMI marketing director.
The discussion ended with board members agreeing to wait and see how the funding contract for VMI might evolve before approving a full year’s budget. Boone insisted that there be certain “goals and measurables” included in the contract. He added that the funding should be crafted on a “sliding scale based on revenues.” He also questioned the need to spend $40,000 a year to print a visitors’ guide that could be done “maybe every two or three years.”
Crisp, also an AirBnB owner, cited the popularity of the guide and print advertising, especially among older visitors who are not adept at using today’s social media and cell phone apps. Thomas said the visitors’ center receives hundreds of requests annually for the guides to be mailed, however, the mailings are done at the center’s expense.
The group also questioned VMI’s decision to keep paying $15,500 a year for a social media platform called CrowdRiff, which no one at the meeting, including Thomas, could explain what it is. According to its website, CrowdRiff is a marketing tool that is used to obtain access to non-copyrighted content, such as photos and videos generated by others, which can then be used on the CrowdRiff user’s own website, social media channels and ad campaigns. The board decided to hold off on paying the first installment of the CrowdRiff bill for 2021 until more information about it and its measurable value could be obtained.
Earlier in the day, Thomas and VMI marketing director Sarah Prasil at the VMI board meeting cited Indiana tourism studies and articles that said once the COVID-19 pandemic eases, families will likely want to visit smaller towns with open spaces and natural resources, and avoid large, heavily populated metropolitan areas.
Madison is a prime candidate, considering its small size and attractions like Clifty Falls State Park, they said.
After a long day of debate and decision, Madison tourism moved one step forward in keeping the doors open, financially. But with COVID-19 still rampant, it remains unclear what the future holds for 2021.
• 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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