By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Thursday’s split decision by the County Legislature to bid out the duties of the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA) continues to reverberate.
Despite opposition during the preceding public comment, five of the nine legislators assented to issuing a request for proposals (RFP) from eligible non-profit agencies interested in promoting tourism in the county.
Democrats Scott Samuelson, Kathy LaBuda, Gene Benson, Cora Edwards and Cindy Gieger were in favor, while Democrats Jonathan Rouis and Ira Steingart and Republicans Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter were opposed.
A motion by Vetter to initially table the vote failed by a similar split.
The matter had not been previously discussed in public, and charges of politicking emerged when SCVA supporters revealed that three prominent local Democrats had formed a non-profit tourism agency in December, called Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion.
The SCVA uses the average $700,000 in room taxes annually collected in the county plus grants to operate its budget as the county’s official tourism marketer. Technically an independent agency, it has been annually contracted by the county to do such for more than a decade.
The latest contract ran out December 31, but legislators have until March 31 to choose whether to remain with the SCVA or hire another non-profit.
In the past, the contract has been renewed with a minimum of discussion, but not this year.
Here’s what the involved parties had to say about the issue:
• Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson: “We’re just saying, ‘Is there anybody else out there?’” he explained after the vote.
But, he added, the news of a potentially competing nonprofit formed in December came as a surprise to him on Thursday.
“I actually thought the Chamber [of Commerce] could possibly do it,” he remarked. “It has to be a 501c3.”
Samuelson said no one should assume the new entity will get the contract, but he did insist that, after 11 years, the SCVA’s contract is ripe for revisiting.
“I think you get complacent,” he stated, adding that the Legislature is “looking for vision in the county.”
He affirmed that he’s not picking on the SCVA, but “I feel like we’ve been stagnating for a very long time.”
• SCVA President Roberta Byron-Lockwood: “Of course it’s disappointing,” she said of the vote. “We have always been absolutely compliant [with the Legislature’s wishes].
“I think our return on investment is a positive one,” she remarked, stating that every dollar spent on tourism in the county has a $36 return to the county. “We’re such a fluid part of the economy in Sullivan County.”
Nevertheless, she understands the desire for an RFP and plans to convince the Legislature the SCVA is worth keeping.
“I’m confident they’re going to listen to us,” she said. “I’m confident in our work ... and that we’re going to be able to show we use those dollars in the most exponential way.”
And if legislators go with someone else?
“Then we’d have to seek different ways of funding,” she acknowledged. “... But it wouldn’t dissolve us.”
• Legislature Vice Chairman Gene Benson: “It’s not a matter of money. It has to do with who can do a better job of what we expect.”
Benson said he had not been satisfied with the statistics Byron-Lockwood had given him during and after a recent committee meeting, where she was touting an independent study that indicated the county’s tourism had grown amidst a depressed economy.
“I had asked about facts and figures, and it wasn’t forthcoming,” he explained.
He dismissed suspicions that the Legislature’s Democratic majority already favors Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion, which was in part formed by Liberty Democratic Committee Chairman (and Democrat opinion columnist) Bill Liblick.
“Did Bill help me with my campaign? Yes,” Benson acknowledged denying, however, that there is any sort of a “done deal” on this RFP.
“It’s not a political thing,” he stated. “We promised people change. This is the change we want.”
• SCVA Board Chairman Paul Carlucci: “We were given no opportunity to present our work to legislators,” he lamented, noting Samuelson was the first to inform the SCVA just two days prior.
After reading several letters of support, Carlucci asked legislators to reconsider.
“The timing of this resolution could not be worse,” he said, referring to the monies and time the SCVA has already spent preparing for the busy summer season.
• Legislature Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda: “I’m a little insulted people think this is a last-minute thing,” she related to the crowd, noting that the Legislature has been looking at redoing contracts for the past month (albeit mostly in private Democratic caucuses and Steering Committee meetings).
“The county attorney told us by law that we must RFP that contract,” she added (though County Attorney Sam Yasgur later disputed that, saying an RFP was one of several ways of handling the contract).
When asked after the meeting, LaBuda said she had heard nothing more than “scuttlebutt” about the formation of a potentially competing nonprofit, until it was brought up that day.
• SCVA Board Vice President Rick Lander: “In the last two days, I’ve been astounded by what’s gone on,” he remarked. “... This is not coming out of the committee process, which is the way open government should be.
“Yet your chairman spoke to our president the other night and said it was going to get passed! How does he know he has a majority?”
Lander also noted with suspicion that the newly-formed Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion nonprofit was founded by politically active locals.
• Legislator Cora Edwards: “I’m convinced an RFP process is the way to get the best return for Sullivan County,” she said. “... It helps everybody. I think, as a grantwriter, that’s a good thing.”
But Edwards also acknowledged that the private caucusing leading up to this decision didn’t cast the Legislature in a positive light.
“In the future,” she said, “we should work harder to ensure maximum public participation earlier in the process.”
• SCVA Board Member Jill Wiener: “We have about 250 members,” she pointed out. “These people have everything to lose if the Visitors Association is now made to go to an RFP. ... [This] is effectively going to stop all marketing for Sullivan County in 2012.”
She was disturbed that a new nonprofit had just sprung up, possibly to compete for the contract.
“I see a problem here, and it doesn’t look good to me,” Wiener remarked.
• Legislator Cindy Gieger: “I ran on a platform of responsibility for the taxpayers’ funding,” she told the audience, “... to make sure that funding is utilized in the best way.”
In a later interview, Gieger admitted, “The timing wasn’t right but I can tell you there were no improprieties.”
She didn’t know about the new nonprofit until that day, but she acknowledged that closed-door meetings about the RFP matter didn’t reflect well on the new Legislature.
“I have to agree, that got away from me,” she acknowledged. “We have to open this up.
“... In hindsight now, yes, we could have waited,” she added. “But I still feel the longstanding contracts that haven’t gone out to bid in 12 years makes us look bad.”
• Legislature Minority Leader Alan Sorensen: “The first time I saw this resolution in physical form was at 12:55 this afternoon,” he said about an hour and a half before it was voted upon.
And he only heard about the possibility of such a resolution the Tuesday prior.
“[This] was pretty much done in the Democrats’ caucus,” he lamented. “It should not have been discussed in a closed meeting. ... Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
Sorensen is calling for more open meetings, including a second monthly Executive Committee where all nine legislators meet in public.
• Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion co-founder Bill Liblick: “As a whim, I formed the not-for-profit ... not knowing if there would be any opportunity,” he stated.
The impetus, he added, came from listening to individuals and tourism businesses who were unhappy with the current state of tourism locally and his own concern over languishing hotels and restaurants.
“We’re in a really, really bad economic condition,” he explained, “and we really need to think out of the box.”
That said, Liblick insisted he didn’t create the nonprofit specifically to compete with the SCVA.
“The more you have to promote and market this county, the better it is,” he pointed out.
The two other names listed on the December 12 incorporation papers just filed in the County Clerk’s Office this past Wednesday are ex-County Clerk Neil Gilberg and Sullivan County Democratic Committee Secretary Donna Schick.
Liblick said he asked them to join him in the effort because Gilberg long managed Kutsher’s and Schick has a wide variety of resort work experience, including at Grossinger’s.
Offended by insinuations otherwise, he said he had not been colluding with legislators to wrest the contract from the SCVA.
“This isn’t a ‘sweetheart deal,’” he remarked, noting that if it had been, “I could have waited till after they voted on this and created the nonprofit.”
Pointing out that he could move forward with other public or private sources of funding, he’s not even sure yet he’ll submit a proposal.
“If I do, it’s because of my passion and love for Sullivan County,” Liblick stated. “... If someone wants to propose something on the merits and someone doesn’t like it, so be it.”
• Legislator Kitty Vetter: “Having RFPs is a vital and good idea so there is nobody who has an automatic job,” she acknowledged.
But Vetter, who unsuccessfully sought to table the idea, wasn’t pleased with the process, which she feared could hinder tourism promotion efforts.
“This puts a major block in how this happens,” she worried.
• Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion co-founder Donna Schick: “I think this is a no-bid contract that needs to be scrutinized,” she stated. “... They [taxpayers] deserve to have an open and fair process that gets the most for their tax dollars.”
Having years of marketing and management experience at Grossinger’s, the Fallsview, the Mohonk Mountain House and as a retired social worker, Schick said she got involved in the nonprofit because “I’m very interested in the future of Sullivan County.”
Though she and Liblick were present at Thursday’s meeting, Schick said she did not know ahead of time that the RFP process would happen in the manner and timeframe that it did.
• Legislator Jonathan Rouis: “I was not in support of the RFP for the Visitors Association contract,” he affirmed. “I voted not to RFP, as I believe that it’s not in the best interest of the county or the businesses that rely on the Association.”
One of two Democrats who dissented, Rouis worried the county’s tourism efforts might take a step backwards.
“The function of the room tax and its associated spending on marketing and promoting the county and the tourism economy is a specialized service,” he said. “The organization (SCVA) has always worked very closely and in concert with the county, and I believe that it has been a symbiotic relationship.”
• Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion co-founder Neil Gilberg: “I had absolutely no knowledge of it [the vote] whatsoever,” Gilberg stated, adding that “it’s never been my plan or goal” to supplant the SCVA.
“I’m a member of this board purely on a voluntary basis,” he remarked. “I’m not in it to make money.”
Indeed, if he had been asked, the former manager of Kutsher’s (and now a state Workmen’s Compensation employee) said he would have gladly served on the SCVA’s board.
Gilberg said Liblick approached him a year ago about starting a tourism-oriented nonprofit, and he’s glad to be involved but not running it.
“While I certainly would act as a director on the board if it happened, this is certainly not my entity in any way,” he explained.
• Legislator Ira Steingart: “I do regret that it got brought out when it did,” he said. “The timing was wrong.”
Steingart was one of two in the Democratic majority who voted against proceeding with the RFP not because he thinks the SCVA shouldn’t be reviewed but because it wasn’t handled properly, in his view.
As the owner of a local printing business, he said he understands how detrimental a major shift at this time can be, and he wishes the Legislature had involved both the public and the SCVA earlier.
“If we were unhappy, I think we should have brought her [Byron-Lockwood] in and told her we were unhappy,” he explained.
As for the existence of a new tourism nonprofit, “that wasn’t part of my decision-making,” Steingart said.
* * *
The county’s Purchasing Department is now creating an RFP for this matter and a separate one for a possible replacement of the county’s current labor negotiations attorney.
Once legislators agree on the RFP’s language, said Samuelson, the request will be formally issued and proposals accepted.
A decision is expected by the full Legislature meeting on March 15.