Plumas Corporation takes big cut to tourism services
Plumas Corporation survived the annual county general-fund budget process with a one-third cut in funding, one of the largest relative losses of financial support taken by any one entity during the Tuesday, June 14, meeting.
The sheriff’s office voluntarily took a larger cut in terms of actual dollars, at $185,000, compared to the $80,000 lost by Plumas Corporation. But the non-profit’s cut represented a much larger chunk of its operation in terms of the relative size of the cut compared to the previous year’s funding.
At the same time, there were moments when it seemed unlikely that Plumas Corporation and the Plumas County Visitors Bureau, which is part of the larger non-profit, would retain any of its funding. Executive Director John Sheehan was visibly and audibly relieved at the end of the day to keep $158,000 in county funding flowing into his office.
As the long Board of Supervisors budget meeting began, chairwoman and Chester Supervisor Sherry Thrall announced that the budget committee’s proposal coming into the meeting was to take the funding that had been going to Plumas Corporation and use it to create a county tourism department, located at the museum in Quincy.
She said the recommendation was for the department to have one staff member who would collaborate and cross train with the museum staff so that both departments would know each other’s jobs, with County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad overseeing the department.
Thrall added, “Hopefully we would save some of the overhead cost, rent, supervision cost.”
She went on to say that the county information technology department would help run a tourism website.
She told her fellow board members that the plan would split the $233,000 that Plumas Corporation got from the county last year into $133,000 for the new county department, $25,000 to the non-profit to help it transition away from county funding, and $75,000 in a competitive fund that groups or individuals could apply to use for various tourism or economic development related purposes.
In a presentation before the board, Sheehan began by addressing the idea that rent would be saved in the transition.
“The facility we’re in now is a county facility. It was renovated with private funds by Plumas Corporation.”
“The rent payments are minimal currently; we’ve paid off the loan so there’s no indebtedness.”
Suzie Brakken, who runs the visitors bureau, later indicated the rent was $567 per year.
Next, Sheehan addressed the idea that his operation had too much overhead.
“I more than welcome discussions with the county on that. We’ve never been requested to have those discussions. We weren’t requested to have those discussions this year.”
“The notion that we’re spending too much on overhead is an interesting notion but one that I challenge everybody here to talk about and not just say that we’re charging to much.”
“I don’t think anybody’s saying that you’re charging too much. I think what we’re saying is, whatever it is we have a potential to save it,” Thrall responded.
Quincy Supervisor Lori Simpson, who was on the budget committee with Thrall, Ingstad and Human Resources Director Gayla Trumbo, said she was upset that she had previously been under the impression that there wasn’t a contract between Plumas Corporation and the county and now found out there was one.
It was an impression this year’s grand jury shared. The grand jury had claimed that no contract was in place, but Sheehan responded that there was a renewable annual contract, and every year when the county decided to fund Plumas Corporation that contract was renewed.
At the budget meeting, Simpson asked Sheehan why the supervisors weren’t told there was a contract.
“Well, I would think it would be up to your staff to tell you that,” Sheehan responded.
Simpson persisted, “Well, you come for money every year; why don’t you bring the contract with you?”
Sheehan answered, “If that’s a problem with you I’m sorry for that, but the county has staff that should let supervisors know when they come into office what exists and what doesn’t exist. There are a number of contracts that we have with a number of entities.”
Simpson said the contract was “archaic” and should have been updated and reviewed every year for the last 16 years.
Sheehan told her he came in every year and proposed a program of work, with measures to show that the work was being done, and the supervisors approved it.
Sheehan told her that every year at budget time the supervisors looked at his budget request and that was a perfect opportunity to look at the contract between the two entities. “I’m sorry you haven’t seen it before and it was a surprise to you,” he said.
“I’m finding a lot of surprises in this county about agreements that have been in place for hundreds of years and nobody ever looks at them,” Simpson responded before adding, “I’m sorry, past boards: out to lunch.”
Sheehan told her that the visitors bureau was moved under Plumas Corporation at a time when the county was expanding its spending in the tourism area. At the time the county felt that his non-profit was the group that most fairly and evenly represented the concerns of people throughout the county.
He said the Plumas Corporation board wanted to work with the supervisors “to give you a better feeling of comfort that we’re doing what you want us to do.”
Ingstad commented that the budget committee and grand jury both recommended new contracts with more accountability for the chambers of commerce and Plumas Corporation.
Sheehan said he was fine with that and his corporation received independent audits every year.
Ingstad agreed, adding that he looked at the company’s books at various times as well.
He said the issue was, “I’m getting a lot of people in the community saying ‘you’re giving money to the chambers, you’re giving money to economic development, what do you get for that money?’”
“I see the line items. I see the salaries. I see the overhead. I see all those things, but I can’t really say ‘this public money accomplished this in the community.’”
“We need now, because of tight budgets, to show that accountability, to say ‘we’re not just paying for people,’ that we’re accomplishing things, and I’m not saying you haven’t accomplished anything. I’m just saying we need to do that every year now.”
Sheehan said he agreed with all of that and felt that Plumas Corporation had helped the county, even at times when the supervisors cut funding.
Thrall said that the chambers would be required to sign new contracts as well.
Near the end of the morning session, Simpson declared, “Just because things have always been done a certain way, I’m sorry, they can be done different and that’s what you gotta get, everybody’s gotta get that in their head, everybody in the county, in your life.”
The afternoon session began with an opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on the budget.
Eight people commented on Plumas Corporation and all eight strongly disagreed with the budget committee’s recommendation to take the county’s contribution from the non-profit and create a county department.
Katherine Templeton told the board that seven people stayed in her lodge in Chester last fall when they came to Plumas County because they saw the visitors bureau’s fall color promotion.
She argued that if the board applied that number to all of the businesses throughout the county, it added up.
She said the visitors bureau filled a different role than the chambers of commerce.
“We are all individual silos that operate in our own little world, but the promotions that bring the county together as a whole is that visitors bureau.”
Mike Wood, a local union representative for mill workers, told the board he wasn’t very familiar with Plumas Corporation’s work in economic development because that wasn’t his area but that Sheehan’s work with the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management group, Plumas County Fire Safe Council, Quincy Library Group and Plumas County Economic Recovery Committee was “exceptional.”
“I would imagine that he would apply that same type of skill to the tourism industry also.”
He said he could not see how you could replace the knowledge base at Plumas Corporation “with something in house.”
“To me it sounds like dropping a dime to pick up a penny, and you have a great asset here.”
Simpson asked him to give her a specific example of economic development work that the non-profit had done.
Wood repeated that he didn’t work in that area and wasn’t the person to ask.
“OK, you answered my question,” Simpson said.
She later said that the formation of the Plumas County Economic Recovery Committee, which she and Sheehan are both members of, must indicate that Plumas Corporation wasn’t doing its job, because the two groups focus on the same topic.
Eastern Plumas Supervisor Terry Swofford added that the Graeagle Plumas Alliance, a relatively new chamber-like organization, was formed “out of desperation because they didn’t feel they were being represented at our end of the county from Plumas Corporation.”
Local attorney and QLG member Michael Jackson said the current tourism system had served the county well and “it just really tears up my heart to hear people attack each other simply because they think maybe something went wrong without looking at what’s gone right in these communities for a long time.”
“I think the whole community is watching what you do here to see whether or not we’re actually just gonna go down or whether or not we’re gonna pull it all together and use all of the resources that we have to try to build this economy.”
“I hope that you look at it optimistically. I hope you keep the relationships that we have so far because it’s so easy to tear things down.”
Brakken, of the visitors bureau, got her chance to speak next.
“I have heard discussion that the visitors bureau is not accountable and that just absolutely confounds me since we track absolutely everything we do.”
She said the reports for how many people come to the bureau’s website and walk into the office and how many major periodicals the county has been mentioned in could all be found online by going to plumascounty.org and clicking on “Visitor Centers.”
Brakken sarcastically added that she hoped “you’re getting this level of accountability from all the people that you’re funding today with the contributions budget.”
She argued that if the county wanted to have a transition in the tourism area it should do it over time instead of overnight.
She said Via magazine’s deadline for a story on Plumas was the next day and it was going to list information about the tourism website and the location of the office. If the county didn’t follow up on the article correctly it would waste money and create “a PR disaster and its gonna be an embarrassment to this county.”
Simpson asked her, “Do you agree that the museum and chambers do visitor services?”
As Brakken began to respond, the supervisor continued, “because I was in that industry. I know they do.”
“Yeah, absolutely, that’s part of the whole partnership effort and that’s part of what we…” Brakken began before Simpson interrupted her again to add, “I mean we refer people and tell them where to go and things like that.”
Sharon Roberts, a business owner who spoke in favor of the bureau earlier, said she couldn’t send people to the Chester chamber.
She said she walked into the Chester chamber office on the Fourth of July the previous year and heard a new worker telling a customer that Highway 89 ended when it intersected Highway 36.
Roberts said she ended up spending 45 minutes with the customer “because the chamber staff doesn’t have the knowledge of the Plumas County product.”
Thrall interjected to say that the discussion was getting off topic because the chambers weren’t the item on the agenda.
Simpson then explained some of her reasons for wanting to cut Plumas Corporation.
“I’ve heard that we reduce your budget but you don’t reduce your staff. You took out a $30,000 – $40,000 advertising budget, and it’s all staff now and Facebook, and I don’t put much stock in Facebook and taxpayer money being used for that.”
Brakken responded that staff was cut at various times but expanded again in 2001 “when we saw that the Internet wasgoing to be the way to go.” Staff was cut again two years ago when the county lowered its contribution by $60,000.
Simpson added that she heard the Via magazine article would have happened without the bureau. “It wasn’t like you guys got ‘em here.”
Brakken said she had breakfast with the Via editor 10 years ago and “gave them hell” for not putting Plumas in the fall color articles. She put a lot of advertising into Via for fall color promotions over the years, but “I don’t want to take credit for it all, Lori.”
She added that Via called her to fact check the forthcoming article.
Swofford asked how much money was spent on advertising.
Brakken said there was less money spent on actual ads in magazines and newspapers because the world was moving towards Internet marketing.
She said her staff created all the content on the website and put out five blogs and five online newsletters.
Simpson commented that she heard someone in Colorado maintained the webpage.
Brakken said her staff created all the content and it was just the literal server that the website is stored on that is in Colorado.
“Why don’t you do it locally?” Simpson asked.
Brakken told her the bureau went to the lowest bidder and it cost $2,500 per year for technical services related to the website.
Simpson said one of the largest parts of the idea of making a county department was that the county IT staff could do that part.
“We’re thinking a little bit out of the box, and I think that’s commendable for us to look forward and think that things don’t always have to be done the same way they’ve been done for the last 17 years,” she added.
Brakken said she talked to the county IT director, who told her he wouldn’t be creating the content on the website.
She said it seemed strange for the county to conduct this entire transition to potentially save $2,500.
Thrall said they should get back on topic and the discussion was “getting into a level of minutia that isn’t really the purpose of the Board of Supervisors.”
Sheehan said he had no problem with new contracts and accountability measures which would please the board, but it would have been better to talk about these issues in a more fruitful fashion instead of trying to figure it all out in an afternoon, “but it didn’t happen.”
“It didn’t happen because of timing and so these questions that you have, none of them have been aired really before in a way that we could be responsive to you.”
“Well, we’re airing them now and it’s to the public, and that’s what I like,” Simpson responded.
Thrall said part of the supervisors’ frustration was that they felt like Plumas Corporation’s 2002 economic strategy document was outdated.
Sheehan told her there had already been two workshops at the Plumas Corporation board, two at the planning commission and a large meeting with all the chambers of commerce addressing that issue.
He said the delay was that the document was being made concurrently with the general plan update so that it would be compatible with the new economic element.
At this point, Thrall asked if Plumas Corporation could continue to provide service if the $158,000 intended for the new county department and transition costs was restored to his budget.
He said one or more tourism positions would be affected by the cut in funding but he would make it work.
Simpson chimed in, “You know my concern is we contract with you for this and we should set the priorities, not you. I mean if we want an advertising budget, then we want an advertising budget. Don’t hire some more staff.”
“Sure, absolutely,” Sheehan replied, “but that kind of insistence has not taken place.”
“Up to this point, Lori, I can honestly say to you that the Board of Supervisors has delegated that authority to the tourism committee and to Plumas Corporation.”
He said he would welcome more hands-on involvement from the board than in the past and that prior boards had shown no interest in that.
Brakken also agreed to work with the museum staff to cross-train employees so that they could cover for each other when shorthanded, at times possibly having the visitors bureau even operate out of the museum if necessary.
At the end of the day, the board unanimously approved restoring $158,000 to Plumas Corporation with Simpson leading a committee to write a new contract.
Plumas Corporation had sustained a one-third cut compared to one percent cuts to the chambers’ combined $113,000 budget from last year and to Plumas Arts’ $30,000 budget from last year.