Faced with the need to fund vital city services, some City Council members want to tap cash reserves built up by the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. The idea is meeting with stiff opposition from the city's hotel industry and Mayor Tim Davlin.
Council members started eyeing the $1.22 million rainy-day fund during budget hearings, after new SCVB director Tim Farley outlined plans to use the money for a new visitor's center, compensate the bureau for lost grants, and subsidize conventions. SCVB's operating budget, which comes mostly from the city's hotel and lodging tax, is about $1.7 million. Farley says for every dollar the city spends on tourism, it receives four back.
But with a corporate fund deficit exceeding $2 million, some aldermen have different ideas. There's a firehouse and its 12 firefighters on the chopping block, public library service cuts, and a health department that's crying for help -- to name a few. At least three aldermen -- Frank Edwards (Ward 1), Frank McNeil (Ward 2), and Frank Kunz (Ward 3) -- want to use most of SCVB's extra dough to bail out these and other programs.
Edwards, whose "last resort" plan is to take about half of SCVB's nest egg and put it back into the corporate fund for general use, asks whether tourism promotion is important enough "to say we'd rather not put police officers on the street or close firehouses?" McNeil, who wants to use $250,000 of the surplus to replenish the public health department, has another take. He doesn't believe SCVB was fiscally responsible. "Prudence is that [the bureau] spend all its money." Or, as Kunz put it, "They done blew it."
The mayor and council allies like alderman Chuck Redpath (Ward 4) insist the council should keep its hands off. Tapping the SCVB reserves, Davlin says, only perpetuates the city's tradition of "quick fixes" and "robbing Peter to pay Paul." He says the bureau has earned its surplus by showing "fiscal responsibility."
The SCVB also has help from Michael Fear, president of the Springfield Hotel and Lodging Association and general manager of the Springfield Hilton. Fear, who is lobbying on the SCVB's behalf, says, "tourism is the driving force in Springfield. Why make us run on four cylinders when we can run on eight."
The council votes on the issue -- and the rest of the city budget -- on Wednesday, Feb. 18.