The Solvang City Council backpedaled Monday by officially and unanimously rescinding its previous contract terminations with the Solvang Chamber of Commerce and the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau.
Council members also authorized city representatives to continue negotiations with both entities while exploring other tourism marketing options.
The decision seemed to reflect the desire of at least some of the handful of Solvang residents and business owners who took time to speak at Monday night's meeting, which lasted more than three hours.
“Please, let’s be adults about this. Let’s not get personal. Without marketing we will be Ghost Town USA. We will not be Tourist Central,” said Adres Piper, a Solvang homeowner and Lyft driver.
But others openly questioned the city’s financial support of the Chamber specifically as a member-driven organization, which they saw as non-transparent and non-democratic.
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“We are not against the chambers. We know the importancy. We will support chambers,” said Kenny “Esko” Lama Newyork, owner of Esko Esko souvenir shop. “We want transparent chambers. We want democratic chambers.”
He said he’s been a member for three years, but that he never heard about board of directors elections, nor has his business been featured in any Chamber advertising. He also called the organization discriminatory in its practices.
“We are tax payers. If they want taxpayers’ money, they should be transparent and democratic,” Newyork said.
Residents Karen Jones and Hank Homburg did not support government subsidization of tourism industries at all, noting traffic issues and infrastructure needs.
“Crumbling infrastructure is the priority in Solvang,” Homburg said. “We shouldn’t be subsidizing businesses with government tax payer funds, whether it's from the transient occupancy tax or what-have-you. Those days are over. Every city gets TOT. Those moneys go in the general fund. Let it supplement our infrastructure. My understanding is if you’re staying in a hotel and you take a shower or poop, you need to have that wastewater go somewhere, so it’s helping everybody including the people in those hotels.”
Three of the top people at the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau were laid off Thursday, as a consequence of the city reducing its fund…
Solvang resident Elizabeth Breen, who has a long history with Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association which became Visit Santa Ynez Valley, urged the council to “look outside the box at how to partner with Visit Santa Ynez Valley and other entities rather than replicating efforts.”
Past SCVB president and Solvang resident Rich Condit urged the council to continue funding the SCVB for a year while it works out future plans rather thang doing “a whipsaw effect on it and pulling the funding back.” Current SCVB President Kim Jensen echoed that sentiment.
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“I would like us to go on and work on wastewater management and be done with this,” Jensen said of the ongoing back and forth that has been this budget issue for more than two months.
City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt expressed high hopes for future negotiations, particularly with the Chamber, whose members attended the city’s budget workshops. As a result of that workshop, the Chamber reduced its initial budget request based on the council’s expressed concern with budget shortfalls in the face of impending infrastructure projects, most particularly the wastewater treatment plant.
“I think we’ve gone through a very good process with the Chamber. We've had a very good negotiation session with them,” Wullbrandt said.
Special City Auditor Tom Widroe raised questions about the SCVB’s budget, as provided on short notice by that organization. He noted an $822,799 line item defined as “not specified” whereas the rest of the document was quite specific.
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“Usually, ‘not specified’ should be 2%t to 5% of that document,” he said, noting the line item represented, instead, the second largest single expenditure.
He also noted the SCVB spent roughly $8,000 on an attorney and $14,000 to $15,000 for severance pay for previous executive director Tracy Farhad.
“As far as I can tell in the contract, you didn’t authorize that. Be very clear (in future contracts) that the only activities that can take place are things listed in the contract, so if you’re going to hire an attorney when you’re representing the city to sue the city, that’s a problem,” Widroe said.
He has also requested IRS transcripts of SCVB accounts after learning taxes were filed late. Widroe said he wants to make sure the city isn’t liable going forward for any late fees or penalties.
“I don’t want any inference that we’re hiding anything. We’re willing to give you anything and everything Mr. Auditor Tom wants,” Jensen said.
In other action, the City Council voted unanimously to order a water rate study with four options, including 20- and 30-year debt loads with fixed and ramped rates. The study will take into consideration potential consolidation with Santa Ynez Community Services District.
“We have to be creative. We have to look outside the box. We have to find ways to get this done and I don’t want to settle for $55. I really would like to find a way through this process that we chew it down much further. This is the way we have to look at that,” said Mayor Ryan Toussaint.