UPDATED – Hanford City Council proposes ending Chamber Contract

After the director of the Hanford Chamber of Commerce admitted a series of management errors and one city council member threatened to terminate the chamber’s contract, the chamber won a 60-day reprieve from the “chopping block” while the city works to rewrite the chamber’s services agreement.

The Valley Voice has received complaints about the way the chamber has been operating concerning the director and board. Manager Mike Olmos said there were several vacancies on the chamber’s board which the chamber is trying to fill. The reasons for the vacancies are unclear.

Chamber Director Joey Joslin told the council the chamber was going to end certain  activities that don’t contribute to the chamber’s primary mission of attracting and promoting businesses in the community.

Among the activities Joslin said they were proposing cutting were sponsoring certain community events, operating Freddie the Fire Truck, which takes visitors around the downtown, and running the downtown carousel in Courthouse Square. Joslin said operating the old firetruck uses $8,000-$10,000 per year of the Chamber’s budget and Is the chamber’s biggest budget liability.

The chamber was “on the chopping block” said Council Member John Draxler, indicating that the organization would get a 60-day reprieve. Joslin acknowledged the characterization of the situation, but he ultimately got a 4-1 majority to continue negotiating with the city to rewrite the Chamber’s services agreement with the city rather than terminate it.

Council Member Martin DeVine said the chamber needs to get away from providing entertainment venues and back to serving members.

Olmos said the chamber is valuable to the city because it relieves the city of the responsibility of undertaking certain activities such as attracting new businesses to town.

It “…sounds like we are on the same wavelength. We need to get back to core goals,” said Draxler. It was discussed by the council who should work with the chamber to rewrite the services agreement and Draxler and Devine were chosen. The new agreement will then be presented to the council within 60 days.

The current services agreement spells out a downward sliding scale of payments from the city to the chamber with $87,500 being paid in the period July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. Each fiscal year thereafter the annual compensation paid to the chamber will be reduced by $10,000, according to the agreement.

One question is whether the city’s oversight of the chamber is adequate.  The July 1, 2016 agreement between the city and the chamber stated there is a one year term with an automatic renewal on a year-to-year basis. The agreement also stated that it can be terminated by either party with 60 days written notice. There is very little language in the 15-page agreement about periodic and frequent  oversight by the city of the chamber’s activities.

Olmos said the chamber is due to receive a quarterly payment of $14,000, plus the chamber will get an additional $10,000 for the city’s share of the cost of the annual July 4 fireworks at the fairgrounds. The total cost of the fireworks display was $60,580 including the cost of the fireworks, a rental payment to the fairgrounds, and security, said Council Member Francisco Ramirez.

Ramirez was the one vote in favor of terminating the services agreement with the chamber.

Ramirez said he saw a lot of inconsistencies in the chamber’s 2018 budget. He questioned an $82,000 expenditure for administration. Joslin said that amount included an assistant and two part-time salaries. When longtime Chamber Director Mike Bertaina was running the organization he was paid as little as $500 per month and in 2016 he received a salary of $1,000 per month, according to published reports.

During Bertaina’s administration there was an influx of people at a lot of  events, said Ramirez. “I don’t see that now.”

Ramirez said he called 30 to 40 chambers and determined that 90 percent of them are not subsidized. “For instance, Selma gets $15,000 from the city and earns $180,000,” Ramirez said. Tulare, he said, gets $17,500 and earns $480,000.

“Why are we not up to those numbers?” Ramirez asked.

“We’re not an event organization,” replied Joslin. “We’re a business services organization.”

Joslin appeared to deflect some of the blame on Main Street Hanford, although he said his statements were not an attack on Main Street Hanford, which represents only downtown businesses.

While Joslin told the council he wasn’t attacking Main Street, he said in other cities, the chambers operate all the profitable events. This was in response to Ramirez’ citing figures of chambers in Selma and Tulare being more profitable than the Hanford Chamber.

Michelle Brown, head of Main Street Hanford, said Joslin’s remarks were an attack on Main Street’s efforts which include the popular summer Thursday night market and a wine and chocolate event during winter. Main Street Hanford is funded by collecting a double business tax from downtown businesses.

The problems experienced of late by the chamber raise the question of whether Hanford has enough businesses and economic vitality to have two chambers, one just supporting downtown businesses—Main Street Hanford—and the other, the Hanford Chamber of Commerce, promoting businesses throughout Hanford.

Hanford has struggled with a “having it both ways” mentality of wanting to support Hanford Mall on West Lacy Boulevard while also preserving the downtown through zoning regulations.

The mall has lost major tenants and wants to add new uses and stores while the downtown merchants oppose any changes to the zoning that would allow these new stores and businesses.

The result has been an economic stalemate.

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