HAGGLING OVER GOOSE DROPPINGS
Mammoth Lakes Town Council agreed to release $400,000 from the Joint Tourism Reserve it holds with Mammoth Lakes Tourism (MLT) at its regular meeting Wednesday.
MLT had asked to pull $750,000 from reserves.
Council released $300,000 to go toward special event funding over the next two years.
$100,000 will backfill the remainder of a town signage and wayfinding project that came in priced over estimate.
As for the $350,000 not awarded at this time, Council didn’t say “no” so much as “not yet.”
The Joint Reserve was established in 2017 in order to cap the amount of dedicated money the town hands to MLT every year.
The Town dedicates 2.5 points of Transient Occupancy Tax revenue to MLT every year. But if TOT exceeds budget ($13.5M in 2018-2019), the excess is tossed into the reserve fund.
This year, MLT Executive Director John Urdi anticipates TOT revenue coming in a whopping $6.5 million over budget, which will translate into another $1.1 million or so being ticketed for a reserve fund which already had approximately $800,000 in it.
But if there’s one thing that the Town of Mammoth Lakes can’t stand, it’s excess.
The philosophical divide
On the one hand, MLT feels shorted by having its marketing dollars from the Town capped. And Mr. Urdi clearly resents having to go to Council, hat in hand, to ask for funds he feels are rightfully MLT’s.
And former MLT Board member Paul Rudder was on
hand to provide fowl references both directly (Golden Goose) and indirectly (Chicken Little).
In particular, Mr. Rudder directed his ire toward an email sent out to local business owners prior to the meeting by former Mayor Matthew Lehman. For context, let’s take a detour and print that here.
Dear Business Owner,
At tonight’s Town Council meeting, the Council will be considering additional funding to Mammoth Lakes Tourism(MLT), to the tune of $750,000. While these items are certainly nice they are not priority items and could easily paid out of MLT’s $9,000,000 marketing budget.
The purpose of me reaching out to you today is less about my frustration with the Town giving funds to an organization (MLT) that doesn’t need it, but more to notify you of fact the Town appears to be giving these funds to MLT instead of focusing separate Measure A funds to enhance housing for for our local workforce. All of our businesses rely on tourism, but there is little benefit in driving a visitor to our community if they have a bad experience because of a poor workforce. It only takes a quick glance at the “Help Wanted” section of our local paper to realize the demand for employment.
Measure A funds are a set funding source that can only be used for Marketing, Transit and Housing and can be shifted at Council’s discretion should demand call for it. In my opinion its time the Town Council stop feeding MLT and take a leadership role for which they were elected. All additional funding such as that in item #19 should stop and ALL Measure A funding should be be pulled from Mammoth Lakes Tourism, bonded and used for housing and transit purposes. Mammoth Lakes Tourism will survived just fine on the remaining $6,000,000 funding they received from the business communities’ TBID source.
Lehman then ended the letter by providing contact information for Mammoth’s Councilmembers. Mayor Hoff said 13 letters were received prior to Wednesday night’s meeting.
Pauil Rudder (yes, back from the detour), characterized Lehman’s email during public comment as “dangerous and inappropriate.”
“Matt says let’s kill the golden goose and save money on goose food.”
The TOT revenue coming in right now, says Rudder, is the product of intelligent marketing. “The money’s coming in like never before,” he said. “Let’s not screw things up for a political idea.”
Rudder’s fear is that any easing on the marketing accelerator could lead to catastrophe.
But then, why did MLT make a $250,000 ask for planning money?
As Urdi explained in his presentation, he wishes to spearhead the creation of a Destination Marketing Plan. Why? Because, he says, with marketing success, “We are creating problems we need to solve.”
On the other hand …
Businessman Tom Cage doesn’t think the Town or MLT needs to blow through $250,000 on a plan and the associated consultants. “We’ve already studied these things,” he said.
He suggested spending the $250,000 on a two-bedroom.
Broad strategy might be something nice to consider down the road, but right now, there is only one strategy: housing. “Throw that excess, whatever you have, at housing,” he said.
Because the longer it takes to address the housing issue, the worse the service product Mammoth will provide. “Our service levels are deteriorating in a drastic way,” said Cage, in large part because so many businesses are short-staffed.
In his business, Cage said he generally has 20 full-timers, 20 seasonals and 20 new hires. This past winter, he only had 10 new hires because of a thinner labor pool and for the first time he can remember, he’s having trouble filling summer positions.
As to the $400,000 Council agreed to release to MLT, Cage thought MLT should have reached into its own pocket rather than raid the reserve. As he pointed out, TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) dollars have also increased proportionally this year. Surely, that excess could have been designated toward special event funding just as easily.
Mono County Supervisor (and former Mammoth Lakes Housing Executive Director) Jennifer Halferty observed that what we’re all struggling with the effects of intense budgetary imbalance among competing priorities since the Town’s near-bankruptcy in 2012.
There’s a reason why certain elements (housing, marketing, transit) were funded at certain percentages, she said. So they would grow in sync.
Halferty’s analysis is that the Town’s stuck playing catch-up in regard to housing and longtime Housing Board member and Councilman Kirk Stapp did not disagree.
He said housing has essentially been unfunded for the past seven years post-airport lawsuit.
There is the fundamental question of why budget TOT at such an absurdly conservative number?
And the answer from Town Finance Director Rob Patterson during the afternoon’s budget workshop was pretty darn revealing. “If we put it in the budget, we’ll spend it,” he said bluntly.
But based on what happened regarding the joint reserve fund, it appears Council will spend it anyway.
Mayor Cleland Hoff went off on a long tangent in her comments, before concluding helplessly, “We’re just tools for the great money-making machine.”
Sheet observation: If you don’t like being a tool, stop being a tool.
MLT Board member Brent Truax told The Sheet Thursday that if TOT was budgeted honestly, then agenda items like this one wouldn’t be necessary.
Reality is, said Truax, is that the new normal, in terms of a conservative budget number, is $16.5 million.
Budget it there, and he says MLT would likely agree to fund the special events program moving forward.