Dallas Spends $30 Million a Year on Its Tourism Agency, But We Have No Idea If That’s Money Well Spent

When VisitDallas appears before a council committee tomorrow, we expect more than a few apologies and promises to do better from the independent nonprofit charged with attracting tourism and conventions.We need to know how VisitDallas managed to operate on an island for years despite a contract that required it to answer to city officials. And we need to know whether the city has been getting its money’s worth from the relationship. A city audit suggests otherwise.Like the kid who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, VisitDallas has agreed to make changes. The city shouldn’t accept that at face-value. The city audit revealed that VisitDallas spent nearly $150 million of hotel occupancy taxes and tourism district funds between 2013 and 2017, and neither the city nor VisitDallas can verify how or how well those dollars were spent.That alone is reason for the city’s Government Performance and Financial Management Committee to dig deeper into the culture of VisitDallas and the city’s own failures to demand accountability. The city's department of Convention and Event Services was supposed to be the watchdog over VisitDallas. So how is it that it did not perform detailed compliance reviews of VisitDallas’ financial reports?To compound matters, the audit found that VisitDallas had consolidated expenses in ways that “inhibit appropriate monitoring” by the city, and consistently made late capital payments of about $500,000 annually to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center apparently without recourse. Again, we ask, where was the city oversight?The audit also raised questions about VisitDallas’ records and overall performance, explicitly calling VisitDallas' performance reports unreliable. The majority of the 53 events that VisitDallas classified as "citywide -- at least 2,500 hotel-room nights booked on their "peak" event nights -- didn’t meet those standards. The city should demand to know whether the books were cooked, and if, so for what reason. The combination of poor record-keeping, vague performance targets and seemingly intentionally creative accounting should prompt the council to dig deeper. The city audit provided a partial roadmap of problems but an outside investigation into the spending activities of VisitDallas and its CEO Philip Jones also is needed.The audit criticizes Jones, whose compensation is almost $700,000 a year, for booking expensive hotel rooms, failing to document the recipients and purposes of expensive gifts, and employing expensive private car services. As CEO, the buck stops on his desk.VisitDallas’ current contract with the city expires in September 2020 so there is more than enough time for the council to figure out how VisitDallas was allowed to elude tough oversight and to take corrective steps. We’re not talking small dollars. VisitDallas gets about $30 million from hotel occupancy tax and tourism district tax dollars, about the operating budget of the Dallas public library system. And it is also the prime marketing arm for attracting conventions and tourists, a major part of Dallas' economy. The best way to make sure we're getting bang for the buck is to make sure that the failures aren't being covered up. This unsigned editorial was written by the editorial board and serves as the voice and opinion of The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

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