Squid Speaks

Belt and Suspenders…Squid decided to lay low this weekend after all the excitement of the week before at Pebble Beach. With a busy Fourth of July coming up, Squid thought best to rest up and putter around the lair getting chores done while watching more meeting videos. The highlight of this lazy weekend was when Squid’s cousin from the Gulf of Mexico, Tiny, made a huge splash on the internet as the first giant squid filmed in U.S. waters. (The Squid family tends to skew towards bestowing ironic nicknames. There isn’t enough shrimp-flavored popcorn in the world that would induce Squid to share Squid’s.)

Squid also was entertained watching the Monterey City Council meeting from June 18. The council passed its biennial budget for 2019-2021 that night, but not without some finagling and frustration with an extra heaping of the sometimes quirky nature of Getting Things Done in government.

Three weeks before on May 29, the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau came hat in hand urging the city councilmembers to increase the city’s contribution to the bureau from just under $900,000 by approximately $300,000 to $1.12 million. The bureau’s reasoning: a previous agreement to share six percent of the city’s revenue from transient occupancy taxes. The last three years the city has held it’s contribution steady at just under the $900,000 mark, despite the fact TOT has risen over that time. With monies that MCCCB gives back to the city per other agreements, the total city contribution is more like a little over three percent of TOT.

President and CEO Tammy Blount-Canavan told the council in essence, if you’ve got budget deficits ahead—which the city most certainly does due to increased pension obligations and other costs—you need to “double down” on your investment in bringing more hotel guests into the city in order to increase revenue. She offered a five-page statement from the MCCVB suggesting what marketing programs—”points of impact” in their language—could be achieved with the $300,000. One of those points of impact, the MCCVB’s “Sustainable Moments” campaign all about responsible tourism. The bureau was planning to encourage tourists to use fewer cars and more public transportation.

On June 18, city staff let Blount-Canavan know they weren’t buying what she was selling. First, Finance Director Lauren Lai made the argument in her presentation that, hey, TOT went up over the last few years at the $900,000 price, proving that no more investment is needed.

Later, City Manager Hans Uslar cast doubt on whether the programs the MCCVB said it needed to fund with the money were even worth the city’s money. He told councilmembers that the city must create a reserve fund in order to meet the expense of future building updates starting in about 10 years. That $300,000 was far more important to maintain the “economic engine” of the conference center than what the MCCVB was proposing, adding, “Why would they not reinvest in the conference center for their points of impact? They would cut their own legs off for the hospitality industry.”

Then Uslar mixed some metaphors: “I doubt those points of impact are actually relevant, because you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

It was too late for Uslar’s arguments. Just hours earlier that day, Blount-Canavan and City Councilmember Alan Haffa met to discuss a plan to secure at least some of the $300,000 based on a deal offered by Haffa at the May 29 meeting. If the MCCVB would take the lead in creating and executing a plan to get hospitality workers to and from work in some sort of ridesharing program to reduce traffic, he’d consider contributing more to the bureau.

Sure enough, that night Haffa proposed giving the MCCVB at least $989,400 in exchange for a transportation plan.

“I would rather err on the side of funding this and being as competitive as we can because this is our revenue source,” Haffa said. “If we can leverage this to get some improvement in traffic that benefits all of us, that’s a win-win.”

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Just as the council was getting ready to vote, a surely frustrated Uslar made one last ditch effort to stop the plan.

“I apologize, I just have to make council aware,” he interjected. He pointed out that in the afternoon session of the council meeting the same day, the council heard a detailed traffic reduction plan paid for with a state grant.

“I understand the spirit of compromise, and I’m willing to go everywhere you want to send me,” Uslar said. “We’re doubling efforts here. We are doing this right now through a grant and this was the presentation (you heard earlier), how they collaborate with the hospitality industry and traffic demand management. I just wanted you to know that.”

Without skipping a beat, the council went right ahead with approving Haffa’s motion. Councilmember Ed Smith made a slight concession to Uslar, commenting it wasn’t “duplicating, but adding on to.”

Squid feels for the city manager. He’s approaching the city’s budget needs logically, but logic doesn’t always have a place in political deals—although marketing jargon clearly does.

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