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Guest Commentary: Former Ste. Genevieve Alderman Offers Facts For Consideration On Tourism Department Budget

I’m writing this in response to the article which appeared in the May 1 edition of the Ste. Genevieve Herald covering the recent quarterly meeting of the Tourism Advisory Council on April 23.

While the quarterly meeting had insufficient attendance of officers to have a quorum, those in attendance took it upon themselves to voice their opinions regarding discussion by the Ste. Genevieve Board of Alderman in reference to the tourism budget.

While these individuals certainly have the right to express their opinions, they are just that — opinions. After reading their comments, I felt it incumbent to address some of these comments … with facts.

Having just finished serving four years on the Ste. Genevieve Board of Alderman, I have seen firsthand what the city budget looks like and have learned a great deal regarding the fiscal challenges we face as a city.

First of all, as a city we have an obligation to provide the following services to our citizens:

  • Police protection
  • Fire protection
  • Street maintenance
  • Public water and sewer services

These items would come under the heading of essential services which are paid for with tax dollars, yours and mine.

We are not obligated to have a tax-funded tourism department.

I will come back to that in a moment.

Let’s talk a little about the budget for the Tourism Department. In the beginning, the operation was run by volunteers and had a director who was paid a small stipend. Then a decision was made by a previous board to hire a full-time director and increase staffing to the Welcome Center.

In the year 2009, salaries for the Welcome Center totaled $40,837, with a total department expenditure of $102,628.

In the year 2017, salaries for the Welcome Center totaled $81,500, with a total department expenditure of $249,806.

To be fair, some money does come back in from the county as well as some grants, which lower the total expenditure to $200,000.

So basically the budget expenditure for this department has doubled in 10 years. This is the only department in the city that has seen this type of increase. When I or others on the board have questioned the justification for spending so much on this department, we have received the standard answer from city administrator Martin Toma: it’s very difficult to track, we really can’t make a direct correlation of its effect.

The general consensus by those in favor was that it has brought in huge amounts of sales tax revenue to the city. One former alderman stated that tourism by itself brought in “millions” of dollars. If this were true, would it not reflect in increased sales tax numbers on the books? One would think so, but a quick look at the numbers going back to 2005 show total sales tax revenue for the city to be $1,093,605. As of the year 2017 the total sales tax revenue for the city is $1,256,953. That’s $163,348 increase over twelve years.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that those numbers are flat.

So where does the majority of the sales tax revenue get generated? Retail business, that’s where.

The automobile dealerships, the lumber yard, hardware store, grocery stores, restaurants, and so on.

There are two other big drivers of revenue — the Jour de Fete  and the RiverDogs baseball tournament.

When those are in town, the restaurants and service facilities thrive.

Here’s some food for thought. When a purchase is made in the city, the tax rate is 9.225 percent. Of that amount, the distribution goes like this: the state gets 4.225 percent, the county gets 3 percent and the City gets 2 percent.

With the City’s share being 2 cents on a dollar it takes $50 in retail sales to generate $1 for the city. To carry this further it would take $10 million in retail sales to cover the $200,000 in expenditure for this department. You be the judge.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how far in the hole we are on this deal. While the city is not in the business of making money, it needs to run in an efficient manner. The city has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to use the money they collect in an efficient and prudent manner. In business, it’s referred to as Return on Investment. The tourism numbers are not a good example of this.

Now, with everything I have just said, you may think that I am against tourism. You couldn’t be more wrong.

We have a beautiful city rich in history, and I want people to come here and visit and spend money. There are ways to make that department more cost-effective. One possibility would be for a group to form a non-profit 501(c)3 and take donations to fund its operation. Some truly great things have happened from organizations set up like this. Many cities have neighborhood organizations which promote their areas and get donations to help them, not tax dollars.

Much has been made of the National Park Service coming to Ste. Genevieve [with the establishment of a national historical park]. When asked about promotion of their site, they stated that they don’t do so because they are not allowed to advertise by law. Only a listing of sites is published. The official stance of the state of Missouri with regard to state historical properties is the same for the same reason. So it’s not ethical for them to spend tax dollars to advertise what they do. This then poses the question: What makes it right for the city to use tax dollars to fund advertising? That‘s exactly what it is. Also a little reality check for Sara Menard, who stated, ”Every small town in the state has a tourism department.” Quite simply, they don’t.

Whatever we do with regard to this situation it has got to change, as it is unsustainable. The bigger picture, and the one that certain individuals fail to see, is as follows. The current city budget cannot keep up with the crumbling streets and infrastructure. The streets are falling apart faster than they can be repaired with the resources we have available.

Mr. [Jim] Ferguson’s comment about “dirt streets” just might become a reality if something doesn’t change with the budget.

The fact that the police department had to go to the voters to ask for a tax increase is another red flag of a budget in trouble.

If things were in line, it would not be needed.

The street department runs with some antiquated equipment well beyond its expiration date. Yet we continue to spend a quarter of a million a year on tourism.

This is why I voted against the budget last time.

The mayor does not want to talk about it, but it needs to be talked about. He needs to listen. It’s time has come. Also, as I have said publicly when I was an alderman and I still say: If someone can provide true accurate numbers to prove the value of spending the amount, show me.

In closing, I would just like to say to the individuals in the article who said we were being “short-sighted” and “need to be educated” that you need to know all the facts before making such emotion-driven statements. I have based what I have just written on public information available to me and drawn my conclusions.

I encourage all who have read this to become engaged, go to meetings, and seek the truth. Then make your voice heard to the city council and the mayor. Thank you for taking your time to read this.

(Randy Ruzicka served Ste. Genevieve Ward 4 as alderman from 2016 to 2019.)

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