In heavy discussion addressing the city’s future infrastructure needs, lack of performance metrics and comparisons with other cities’ spending habits, the Solvang City Council on Monday drastically reduced funding to the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau and Solvang Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber initially requested $300,000, up from last year’s $250,000 budget level.
But after attending the City Council’s goal-setting session Saturday, the chamber reduced its funding request to $200,000.
Council members thanked the chamber for recognizing the council’s long-term goals but sought further cuts in an attempt to save for such long-term projects as the wastewater treatment plant upgrade.
“I’d like to compliment the chamber for taking the responsibility for seeing what happened at the retreat,” said Mayor Ryan Toussaint. "It shows you are seeing the funding challenges this council will be faced with in the near future."
Councilman Chris Djernaes told fellow council members he had spoken to representatives from more than 25 cities up and down the state, “and the average [they] spend on chambers of commerce is about $25,000.”
Councilman Robert Clarke said city representatives he’s talked to from around the state “think Solvang is nuts in the amount we give away to grants, the chamber and visitors bureau.”
Several council members also the chamber should be funded largely by the members it serves, not through the city budget.
After several failed motions and votes that included funding as low as $25,000 and even complete defunding, the council ultimately voted 3-2 to approve a $150,000 budget expenditure, with Djernaes and Councilman Daniel Johnson dissenting.
Djernaes and Johnson also cast the dissenting votes in a 3-2 decision to provide $600,000 to the visitors bureau in 2019-20, down from $775,000 last year and far less than the $850,000 requested.
Councilwoman Karen Waite, who was clear about her support of both the chamber and the visitors bureau, reluctantly put forth the motion only after more drastic motions failed.
“I don’t want to outsource,” Waite said. "I don’t want to unfund. Let’s see how well the visitors bureau can do on a reduced budget … . I can see the dilemma we’re in."
Johnson expressed an interest in further cuts and streamlining the city’s marketing efforts.
Currently the chamber and visitors bureau both work to promote the city, as does the Santa Ynez Valley Hotel Association.
Johnson said that three-pronged approach to tourism marketing in Solvang brings with it triple expenses, with three administrative heads and three organizations’ costs.
“There’s gotta be a better way to do this,” Johnson said. "We need to rein this in. We have way too many expenses coming down the line.
"I was trying to find like a million [dollars] a year so in two years we have two million to be able to fund the wastewater treatment to plant to get that going so we don't have to increase rates on the residents."
Djernaes called for complete defunding, putting marketing efforts out to bid, and shopping for or developing an organization that can provide clear reports on the results of their efforts while spending less.
“Having looked into this area deeply for the past three or four months, I think we can do a lot better,” Djernaes said. "We have to do a lot better with this money."
Djernaes said Carmel, which he considers a comparable city in its tourism focus, spent $120,000 on its visitors bureau last year and another $20,000 to $30,000 on its chamber of commerce.
Clarke also specifically addressed the council’s desire to develop an upgraded wastewater treatment facility with as little impact as possible on Solvang residents.
“We have to come up with $15 million to build a wastewater treatment plant or we have to quadruple everybody’s water rates and sewer rates, and those are the people who voted for us, and we’re going to have hell to pay if we don’t do something about that,” Clarke said.