AP NEWS

Tourism agency’s records under wraps

May 19, 2019

BRADLEY — Bradley village officials want the local tourism agency to open up its books. But they say they have been unsuccessful so far.

The Kankakee County Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose mission is to bring overnight guests to the area, is largely funded by taxes on hotel rooms. The majority of that money comes from Bradley, which has most of the area hotels.

On April 5, Rob Romo, the village’s finance director, asked the bureau for its general ledger, a record of the agency’s transactions. He also sought a list of its vendors.

“I have been asked to vet these documents,” Romo said in an email to Staci Wilken, the bureau’s executive director.

This email was sent three days after the village election, in which then-Mayor Bruce Adams, a defender of the tourism agency, lost his Democratic majority on the board. He resigned late last month, two years before the end of his term.

The new mayor, Mike Watson, is more skeptical of the tourism agency, arguing it should gear more of its efforts toward Bradley. After the majority took office last month, the village trustees revoked Bradley’s five-year agreement with the agency, which the old village board had approved just a week before. The legality of that reversal is the subject of a dispute.

In response to Romo’s information request, Wilken said the bureau’s executive committee instructed her to compile the requested financial documents. The records would go to Mayor Adams, the village’s appointee on the agency’s board, she said.

On April 17, Romo emailed Wilken that the village had not received all the sought-after documents. He said a few of the trustees would like to review things such as the general ledger and vendor list.

A day later, Wilken indicated that such information wouldn’t be sent to the village trustees.

“If any of the trustees have a specific question or would like to review the general ledger in person at our office, please let me know and we can accommodate them,” Wilken said.

She left unclear in the email why the agency wouldn’t release the documents. Asked about this in a Daily Journal interview, Wilken said, “We’re making sure we’re protecting our vendors and our employees. We don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage in promoting Kankakee County as a tourist destination.”

Last October, Watson had concerns about the tourism agency and visited it to review its financials, Wilken said.

Although the agency is not subject to the state’s open records law, its 11 board members regularly review its finances, Wilken said.

“I’m really proud of the work our board members are doing. They take their jobs seriously,” she said.

In an email, Hollice Clark, the bureau’s president, backed the decision not to release the records.

“The CVB has no quarrel with other representatives of those units of government reviewing the CVB’s financial records,” Clark said. “However, the CVB must remain cognizant of the fact that any document released to a unit of government will become a public record. To that end, the CVB must be careful to protect the privacy of its employees and vendors, and it will not release records that will place it in a competitive disadvantage in terms of promoting Kankakee County, as a whole, as a tourist destination.”

“(T)here is an open invitation to the representatives of the village of Bradley to review those records that were requested but not released. To this date, no one from the village of Bradley has accepted that invitation,” he said, noting that Watson did so last year.

SPENDING QUESTIONED

In an interview, Romo said the agency should provide the public its financial information, given that taxpayer dollars fund it.

“They are getting all this tax money. Are they using it efficiently?” he said.

Romo said village officials have been unfairly cast as opponents of the bureau. He said the village merely wants accountability.

“Our No. 1 concern is that we are not allowed to get financial information,” he said.

He noted the recent situation involving the regional sewer plant, known as the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, which paid its longtime former executive director $700,000 for software that reportedly does not work.

“We want to make sure there is not another KRMA on our hands,” he said.

‘UNLIMITED ACCESS’

Because Bradley is host to the majority of the county’s hotels, most of the hotel tax money comes from Bradley. Of the $685,885 total last year, $408,534 originated from Bradley. All of that goes to the tourism agency, which gets an additional $144,000 in the form of a state grant.

A 5 percent tax is applied at hotels throughout the county. The money passes through the county treasurer’s office and then goes to the agency’s coffers.

Romo recently analyzed the expenditures of 18 convention and visitors bureaus, including Kankakee County’s. Of those agencies, Kankakee County’s spent the second highest amount per hotel room — $879. The highest was the bureau in Alton, which came in at $1,055. Unlike the local agency, Alton’s runs a convention center as well, Romo said. The average was $444.

“The KCCVB spends almost twice as much than the average convention bureau,” Romo said in an email to the Daily Journal. “Maybe this is because they have had unlimited access to the county’s hotel tax dollars, and no one else has done their due diligence in looking at other budgets for convention bureaus.”

Wilken said there are 39 convention and visitor bureaus and that Romo’s analysis is comparing apples to oranges, each agency having a different funding mechanism. Some get bigger state grants, relying less on hotel taxes, she said.

The work of the convention and visitors bureau should supersede politics, she said.

“We don’t want to lose sight of the positive in the community,” Wilken said.

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