By Anthony Pignataro
The story goes that Terryl Vencl spends a lot of time at Maui County Council budget hearings. Supposedly, she’s there every day, during the spring months when the council painstakingly reviews its proposed budget, which is hovering between $550 million and $560 million. It makes sense, because Vencl, the executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau (MVB), has a lot riding on the outcome of the seemingly endless budget meetings. About 3.5 million reasons, to be exact.
Since about 1991, the MVB–which promotes Maui as a visitor destination through advertising, marketing and “press blitzes,” which are junkets in which travel journalists get paid to fly out to Maui, stay in five-star resorts and then go home and write great things about the island–has received taxpayer money from the County of Maui (and the State of Hawaii, but I’ll get to that later). It started out as a modest grant of $150,000, but has in recent years ballooned to $3.5 million. The State of Hawaii also gives the organization roughly the same sum each year.
Whether she’s spending time at county council meetings or not, Vencl, who since 2003 has run the bureau (they’re currently headquartered in a Wailuku office park near the post office), is well paid for her work. She collects a bit more than $134,000 in salary and benefits, according to the MVB’s 2010 federal tax returns. Interestingly, tax records from 2009 and 2010 show that number stays pretty steady, regardless of whether the county gave the organization $3.6 million (as they did in 2009) or $1.9 million (during the hard times of 2010).
Anyway, it’s county budget time again–fiscal year 2013–and once again Vencl’s been spotted listening attentively at the hearings. I called her to talk about the money the MVB takes from the county every year, and the controversy it’s weathered in recent years, but Vencl refused to comment.
“I don’t comment in the midst of budget talks, and it’s still going on,” she told me. “I’d be happy to sit down with you after it’s over.”
Of course, it’s really hard to criticize anything associated with the visitor industry on Maui when newspaper headlines (like the one in The Maui News on May 10) say things like “Economist says state’s growth led by tourism.” The flying of tourists from all over the world to Maui has, for at least the last 50 years, been the backbone of the county’s economy. There’s often been talk of building up the county’s tech or agribusiness economy, but that remains talk: today, the visitor industry accounts for about 40 percent of Maui County jobs.
Statewide, the numbers are even more impressive. “Tourism is on pace to support more than 166,000 jobs annually and contribute $37 million daily into our economy in 2012,” Hawaii Tourism Authority President Mike McCartney said in a recent bulletin put out by his office. “These out-of-state dollars support kama‘aina businesses, create new industries and help our counties to improve roadways and beautify parks. These monies also support Hawai‘i Tourism Authority programs that celebrate, perpetuate and sustain our unique place, people and diverse cultures.”
Nonetheless, a couple Fridays ago, resident Buck Joiner drove to the county’s Kalama o Maui building in Wailuku, headed up to the eighth floor, filled out one of those little public comment cards and then did exactly that–criticize one of the most powerful players in the county’s visitor industry. For three minutes at the beginning of the May 4 Maui County Council Budget Committee hearing, Joiner railed against the Maui Visitors Bureau, a non-profit organization.
“I’m here today to ask for fairness and honesty,” Joiner said, calling attention not only to the organization’s request for $3.5 million from the County of Maui, but also to it receiving an equal from the State of Hawaii. “That’s not a small amount. Yet they come to you and say they want more.”
Though the MVB is a private organization, it’s nearly completely funded by the county and state. And in tough economic times, when Mayor Alan Arakawa can’t get the council to go along with his plans for a new sports arena and the council itself is talking about raising property taxes to help pay off the county’s $594 million in unfunded health and pension liabilities, $3.5 million is a lot of taxpayer money to lay out for something that pretty much exemplifies “corporate welfare” (see below for a breakdown of the MVB grant request).
But Joiner wasn’t done. After saying he doesn’t oppose the MVB per se, only “who pays for it,” he insisted that the Maui Visitors Bureau behaves as though the tax dollars it receives are private donations.
“It’s basically a government organization, and we can’t find out how their money is spent,” he told the budget committee members. “I believe you’re robbing from the poor and giving to the rich.”
Just one councilmember, Don Couch, asked Joiner for clarification when his three minutes were up. After answering the question by saying the county needed to perform an audit of the MVB funds, the rest of the council moved on to other business. Well, most of the council–Mike White, a near and dear friend to the MVB (his day job is GM of the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, and he’s a former MVB board member) later referred back to Joiner. White, whose first act upon taking office in 2011 was to push for the MVB to get even more money from the county, said Joiner was all wrong, and there was plenty of accountability concerning the MVB grant.
For clarification, I called Teena Rasmussen, the director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, which administers the MVB grant.
“It’s absolutely not true there’s no accountability,” Rasmussen said. “MVB’s grant, as is true of all of our grants, is a reimbursement-only grant. Which means they spend the money, they have to give us an invoice and then we reimburse them for those invoices. So we have virtually a copy of every single invoice so we know exactly what those invoices purchased.”
Rasmussen added that her office meets with MVB officials “a minimum of every 60 days” and that they “stay in touch with them on what their goals are.”
Nontheless, Joiner’s criticism of the MVB grant merits serious attention for a few reasons. That Rasmussen’s office looks over the invoices MVB submits is great, but it’s also somewhat unique. That’s because the MVB grant doesn’t go through the usual process of being vetted by the Maui County Grants Review Committee, a seven-member body of appointees who evaluate grant applications under the Department of Housing and Human Concerns Community Partnership Grants (CPG) program. Joiner knows this well because he used to sit on that committee, which he called a sobering experience.
“We got 70-some applications,” he said. “We went through them with a fine-toothed comb. It was really grueling. Some of these people were just skin and bones. The total requests were for $3 million, but we only had $1 million to give. The only thing we could guarantee was that everyone would be disappointed.”
Running the MVB grant through a committee like that, which would hold regular public hearings, would add a layer of “accountability” to the MVB funds. But there’s a better solution: simply cut off the funds entirely, and let the visitor industry itself fund the Maui Visitors Bureau.
There’s plenty of precedent for this. In fact, before Vencl took over the MVB, she was executive director of the Maui Hotel Association (MHA), a trade group that lobbies on behalf of Maui’s big hotels and resorts (it’s also located in the same Wailuku office park as the MVB). According to the 2010 MHA tax returns, the group took in nearly $240,000, not a penny of which came from the government. There was $193,854 from membership dues and another $44,625 from fundraising.
Granted, those numbers are much lower than the $3.5 million ponied by the county, but given the gravity of the county’s budget situation, I’m sure the many hotels, resorts, restaurants and activities that make Maui County’s visitor industry–buttressed by what they continually tell us are ever-rising numbers of tourists and ever greater monthly visitor spending totals–can pass the hat for the greater good.
Of course, there’s also the nearly $3 million that Maui gets from the Hawaii Tourism Authority this year. When added to the county’s MVB grant, it totals more than $6 million in taxpayer grants to the MVB. Joiner mentioned this money in his criticism at the May 4 Budget Committee hearing, though the figure he cited was $8 million.
“Eight million dollars with absolutely no accountability,” Joiner said. “We can’t find out how their state money is spent. That’s considered top secret.”
Momi Akimeseu, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told me the MVB is receiving $2,906,436 from them this year, on top of $2,790,018 they took from the HTA last year. Akimeseu also said the HTA gave $248,782 to visitor efforts on Molokai and $144,000 to efforts on Lanai (those grant numbers were the same in 2011).
As far as what the money is going towards, the HTA only published a vague list back in January of “community and cultural events” the organization has supported: Whale Day, the Maui Marathon, Lahaina Plantation Days, Wailuku First Friday, stuff like that. But exactly what that support entails isn’t made public.
In any case, the Maui County Council as a whole will take up the proposed budget on Friday, May 24. They have until June 10 to pass a fiscal year 2013 budget. Past years have shown the council to be very friendly to Vencl’s requests, but maybe the best we can hope for is that she’ll finally decide to talk to us about her plans for the taxpayer’s money.
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MAUI VISITORS BUREAU GRANT REQUEST BREAKDOWN
Domestic Marketing/Advertising $ 770,000
Trade Shows $ 125,000
Golf Hawaii $ 28,000
Maui Invitational $ 360,000
Golf Marketing & Media $ 150,000
Sports Marketing (Xterra) $ 184,000
Events (other) $ 100,000
MCI Advertising/Trade Shows (Sales) $ 20,000
MCI Advertising/Trade Shows (Marketing) $ 100,000
PR (Blitzes & Press Trips) $ 195,000
Promotions/Trip Winners $ 40,000
Film Office $ 32,500
Developing Markets/Asia $ 225,000
Activities Owners Association $ 30,000
Fulfillment/Collateral $ 220,500
Promo/Collateral Marketing $ 40,000
Market Research $ 5,000
Production $ 125,000
Accounting/Admin $ 350,000
TOTAL $ 3,100,000
Molokai $ 200,000
Lanai $ 200,000
GRANT TOTAL $ 3,500,000
[SOURCE: Maui Visitors Bureau Grant Request FY 2013]