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Commissioners OK paid tourism position

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County's Visitors Committee will pay a rural McCook, Nebraska, woman $35,000 a year to put "heads in beds" -- heads that pay lodging taxes that will be used to help promote tourism in McCook and Red Willow County.

Carol Schlegel of rural McCook is chairman of the county's Visitors Committee whose members have written a contract that outlines Schlegel's duties as "tourism director" for one year. The contract pays her $2,916.67 per month plus mileage and expenses, and provides her with a 10 percent annual bonus ($3,500) for satisfactory job performance.

County commissioners -- Earl McNutt, Steve Downer and Vesta Dack -- signed the contract during their weekly meeting Monday morning, with a couple changes stipulated by county attorney Paul Wood to protect the county.

Schlegel's salary will be paid with taxes generated by lodgers in McCook and Red Willow County motels -- "not with county taxes," Vesta Dack said Monday morning. Wood wanted it clear that Schlegel's salary is not paid with county taxes. Schlegel told commissioners she is aware that if there are no lodging taxes, there is no funding for visitor promotion and no funding for her salary.

Visitors Committee member Dan Stramel said Tuesday morning that if lodging taxes fall below the level of Schlegel's salary, her salary could be reduced, or the position could be eliminated altogether.

Schlegel suggested during the commissioners' meeting Monday, and commissioners agreed, that she be directly responsible to the Visitors Committee, not to county commissioners (as Wood recommended), and that the Visitors Committee rate her job performance. "I'm working with the Visitors Committee on a daily basis," Schlegel said, and Stramel said it would work best if Schlegel reports to the Visitors Committee and the Visitors Committee reports to commissioners.

Stramel told commissioners that the lodging tax revenue in Red Willow County varies each year, depending on such things as vacationers and construction, and has ranged from $38,000 to $75,000 annually (since 1980, when the Nebraska Legislature passed LB 499, the "Visitors Development Act.")

"If there is not enough tax generated, then we're back to square one," Stramel said, explaining that the Visitors Committee is an all-volunteer board and has relied on Schlegel for years "as the workhorse" to help the committee work toward its goals of promoting tourism and bringing people to Red Willow County motels to pay lodging taxes.

The committee has outsourced some of its responsibilities throughout the years, Stramel said, and subcontracted with Kris Krepcik to design and update its website and design marketing brochures. "But Kris has left," Stramel said, "and no one on the committee has the time to complete these tasks, to get done the things we want to get done, like marketing, brochures, working with ad agencies, creating materials for periodicals." Stramel continued, "Lining up ad placement, updating our website -- no one on the committee has the time to do that."

Krepcik charged an hourly rate, Stramel said, and the committee paid him, depending on the hours he worked, some years approximately $20,000 a year.

The Visitors Committee has also paid the McCook Area Chamber of Commerce $600 a month to answer its toll-free telephone calls (1-800-657-2179) because the Committee has had no "office" or paid staff, and to print copies, facilitate its meetings and write meeting minutes and send brochures when they're requested. Stramel said the Visitors Committee may revisit that arrangement, but, he said, committee members are reluctant to pull that funding -- $7,200 a years -- from the Chamber.

One thing that won't change, Stramel said, will be that Visitors Committee claims are paid through the county treasurer's office because the state funnels the lodging taxes through the treasurer's office.

Stramel said the new tourism director's position is designed like others across the state. Lincoln, Douglas, Lancaster and Adams counties each have a paid tourism director's position, he said. The salaries are based, he said, on lodging taxes collected. One position is paid $80,000, but that county collects a million dollars a year in lodging tax income, he said.

There is "huge competition" for tourism director positions, Stramel said. "Every county needs and wants tourism."

Stramel said the new position was not advertised, nor is it required to be. Stramel said that Schlegel's experience as an owner/operator of a motel and as a long-time member of the Visitors Committee will help her tremendously in the job. "Carol's been the workhorse of the committee for 25 years, and has been paid absolutely nothing," he said.

Stramel said the committee hopes that creating the paid position and outlining specific duties will help the committee reach its goals of promoting Red Willow County to tourists. "We're backlogged for so many years ... we're so far behind our goals from five years ago," Stramel said.

In 1980, Nebraska Legislature passed LB 499, the "Visitors Development Act," which:

* Created a fund for activities and solicitation to attract visitors to Nebraska and encourage the use of travel and tourism facilities in Nebraska;

* Provides for a lodging tax on hotels to establish a "State Visitors Promotion Cash Fund" and,

* Authorizes the governing body of any county to appoint a visitors committee and impose a lodging tax on hotels for the purpose of establishing a County Visitors Promotion Fund and a County Visitors Improvement Fund.

A lodging tax is a sales tax imposed upon the total gross receipts charged for the occupancy of any space furnished by any hotel, motel, tourist home, campground, court, inn, bed and breakfast or lodging house in Nebraska. All lodging taxes -- state and local -- are imposed in addition to the regular sales and use tax.

In addition to Nebraska's 1 percent state lodging tax, counties may also impose a lodging tax of not more than 4 percent. Red Willow County's lodging tax is 2 percent.

Schlegel, whose family owns the Chief Motel and Restaurant in McCook, told commissioners that lodging taxes throughout the county generated $66,000 in Red Willow County in 2010, which was a $10,000 increase over the year before. "It should increase this year, too," she told commissioners, explaining, with Stramel, that construction in McCook and the area this year has helped fill motel rooms.

Schlegel's duties as tourism director will be to promote, encourage and attract visitors to the county, and to facilitate events and activities that can utilize travel and tourism facilities available in the county. She will provide promotional services such as:

* Development of promotional devices such as brochures, websites, media placement and other printed and electronic pieces deemed necessary by the Visitors Committee.

* Facilitating marketing grant program(s) for local events including providing applications, receiving requests, notifying successful recipients and receiving follow-up reports.

* Preparing Visitors Committee meeting agendas and assisting with annual budget preparation.

* Utilizing updated technology and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as deemed appropriate by the Visitors Committee.

* Utilizing state programs that could promote tourism in Red Willow County, such as marketing grants, as deemed appropriate by the Visitors Committee.

* Increasing statewide visibility, becoming involved in appropriate organizations such as the Nebraska Tourism Association, the Nebraska Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus and the South Platte United Chambers of Commerce.

* Reporting to the Visitors Committee on a monthly basis and to county commissioners on a quarterly basis.

According to the contract, it will continue to be the county's responsibility to pay accounts payable claims and to collect lodging taxes for the County Visitors Promotion Fund.

Commission chairman Earl McNutt said the state lodging taxes flow into the county's treasurer's office and the commissioners appoint Visitors Committee board members, but the commissioners have no other oversight or control of the Visitors Committee.

Visitors Committee members are Schlegel (who will now have to be replaced as a committee member and as committee chairman), Stramel, Perry Strombeck, Laura Ford and Doug Vap, all of McCook. It was this board, Dack said, that wrote Schlegel's contract and set the salary for the position.

The job will be full-time, Dack said, but they may be "odd hours," as Schlegel will have to facilitate whatever event or activity she has attracted to town.

McNutt said the position is "definitely using only lodging taxes." Dack said, "Carol Schlegel is not a county employee, and the lodging tax is not county money. It's motel money."

The position is "geared to get people to McCook (and Red Willow County) to pay lodging taxes," Dack emphasized, and the ultimate purpose of the position and the goal of the Visitors Committee is to promote McCook as a tourism destination, not to encourage people to move to or back to, McCook and Red Willow County.

Stramel said this morning that the Visitors Committee has no idea who will fill Schlegel's position on the committee or as chairman. Anyone interested in the committee position with an eye on promoting tourism in the county is encouraged to contact any one of the three county commissioners.

Commission Chairman Earl McNutt said that the position of tourism director and a contract for a tourism director were not developed at the request of commissioners. "Commissioners didn't request this," McNutt said. "It was not prompted by the county."

McNutt stressed that although the contract reads "County agrees to pay Schlegel a base amount of $2,916.67 ...., " and "County also agrees to pay Schlegel a 10 percent bonus annually, ..." and "County shall reimburse Schlegel for any reasonable and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of the Agreement," Schlegel's job is an independent contracted position and she is not a county employee and will not be paid county benefits. Stramel said that Schlegel will not be paid benefits by the Visitors Committee.

According to the contract, the county will provide Schlegel with a 1099 (a tax form for an independent contracted position) at the end of the year.

McNutt said that county attorney Paul Wood has reviewed the contract at least twice, and that Wood added wording to protect the county in the event that lodging taxes are ever eliminated. Wood's change Monday morning to the contract stipulates that if at some point tourism lodging taxes "dry up," and are no longer available, the contract is terminated.

The contract states, " ... that Schlegel shall ... be considered a Tourism Director under the general supervision and control of the Red Willow County Visitors Committee and that Schlegel's compensation shall be determined exclusively by the terms of this agreement."

McNutt said that the position did not have to be advertised or offered for a bid because it is not a county position paid for with county taxes.

McNutt said he agrees with several comments that he's received, "Yep, this is a pretty good paycheck."

"I'll be curious to see what she brings to town," McNutt said.

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The county has one of the lowest lodging taxes in Nebraska. Can some of the taxes help pay for signs for the Kiplinger? Improvements to the Fair grounds?

-- Posted by dennis on Wed, Oct 19, 2011, at 1:28 PM

If I understand this correctly we are now going to pay someone to promote their own business (heads in beds)? Absolutely no conflicts of interst in this?

-- Posted by Ed on Thu, Oct 20, 2011, at 2:48 AM

the statement that caught my eye in this article was that the position, since it is not a county job, doesn't have to be advertised. just curious, since I know two county deputies that have left the force in the past 6 months, and I know they have hired atleast 1 replacement, how come we haven't seen any advertisements for these jobs? Just curious, because you see job ads for the other county offices, but not the sheriff, unless I missed something

-- Posted by Ladyg on Thu, Oct 20, 2011, at 3:48 PM

I'm curious as to what the Chamber of Commerce is for? I realize the Chamber is City, however aren't they supposed to promote tourism? And, I agree with Ed about the conflict of interest and the bias of the County NOT to advertise for these positions. Even though Carol is well connected, who's to say that she's the BEST candidate?

-- Posted by Rural Citizen on Fri, Oct 21, 2011, at 9:57 AM

Does this hiring seem a little weird to anyone? The hiring of a motel owner with no competition. If the past revenues have been as low as $38,000 and we pay the Director $35,000 plus a bonus of $3500 (for satisfactory performance?)and expenses, then we could possibly go backwards, as we don't have the original revenue of $38,000 to spend. With the future dam repair and all the house repairs that are happening and will be happening, the lodging revenues should increase on their own. I'd rather see a 10% bonus when the revenues increase way above what they are now and give it due to outstanding performance. The position needs to be filled, but the way this happened and the promise of a 10% bonus doesn't seem like it was a wise or open decision.

-- Posted by Pigman1 on Fri, Oct 21, 2011, at 6:06 PM

Can funds be used to stock some antelope, parrie chickens, grouse, quail in the area to attract hunters? Fish at Red Willow when it is repaired?

-- Posted by dennis on Sat, Oct 22, 2011, at 9:48 AM

We have hundreds of snowbirds traveling through southwest Ne. on any given day in the winter months.How about a simple sign telling these people that there are ample parking spots one block south of B street?

-- Posted by hulapopper on Sat, Oct 22, 2011, at 7:48 PM

geez, a school administrator that can't spell, 'prairie', hmmm

-- Posted by Ladyg on Sun, Oct 23, 2011, at 10:07 PM

Geez, an arrogant poster that doesn't capitalize the first word of a sentence or end the sentence with some form of punctuation? hmmmm

-- Posted by Nick Mercy on Tue, Oct 25, 2011, at 8:49 PM

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