Chamber discussion occupies commission work session

Flash back to the commission’s last budget meeting on Sept. 26. One of the commission’s most contested items was what to do about funding for the Blount County-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce, with an allocation of $60,000 for fiscal year 2013.

Cutting to the chase, the decision was made to agree to reduce the 2014 allocation to $50,000 in order to pass the budget, and to defer action on how to split the allocation between the Blount County- Oneonta Chamber and the recentlyformed West Blount Chamber until the next commission business meeting on Oct. 21. ( There was, at one point, a passing suggestion that a more-than-twoway split might be appropriate, but that idea made no headway.)

The deadline is next Monday, and the Chamber of Commerce decision, according to work session discussion, will be on the agenda for a vote. No consensus emerged at the work session that might have formed the basis for a motion on the matter. It will therefore be up to commissioners to propose a split, then vote it up or down.

The work session dialogue on agenda item 14 – “Division of funds budgeted to chambers of commerce within the county” – began with District 1 Commissioner Allen Armstrong. He said that he didn’t believe any money should be dispersed to the Blount County-Oneonta Chamber based only on the action plan it had developed to meet with stakeholders, including mayors and others around the county, to seek input to their needs as well as to the chamber’s planned activities and programs. He said distribution of money should await satisfactory performance on the steps outlined in the action plan.

Referring to assistant chamber director Amy Wilson, who was in the audience, as “overworked and underpaid,” he asked her about the status of the action plan. She said that she intended to follow through the steps outlined, indicating that the plan had already evolved since its first version, and would probably continue to do so as needs are identified going forward.

District 2 Commissioner Carthal Self questioned her, asking her if she handled most of the chamber’s routine work, such as the newsletter, responding to email inquiries, and other matters. She indicated she did handle such items but with assistance from others, depending on the subject matter. Self said he didn’t believe the chamber needed a highlypaid director when the assistant director seemed capable of handling the work requirements.

Armstrong said again he thought the taxpayers’ money should not be spent just on the basis of the chamber’s words – referring to its action plan – but should “earn it” based on its performance over some period of time in carrying out those action plans.

District 4 Commissioner Gary Stricklin entered the discussion saying that the Blount County-Oneonta chamber needs the money to meet operational needs while its action plan is being carried out, and that the commission needs to act on the appropriation within a reasonable time. “They have to have operating funds to go forward,” he said.

“Well, we’ve had two requests,” Armstrong pointed out, referring to the West Blount Chamber’s request for commission funding.

Stricklin replied with a proposed split of $5,000 for the West Blount Chamber (the same it received last year) and $45,000 for the Blount County-Oneonta Chamber, (a $15,000 reduction from last year.)

Without commenting on the split, Self said the chamber should come up with a “game plan” indicating exactly what it planned to do. He didn’t name the Blount County-Oneonta chamber, but that was the context of the discussion.

“Anybody can provide lip service, but actions speak louder than words,” Armstrong said, returning again to his performance theme.

District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert checked in to the discussion reiterating the $5,000/$45,000 proposal, noting again that the West Blount Chamber would receive the same amount as last year and the Blount County Oneonta Chamber significantly less.

A brief argument ensued between Armstrong and Calvert as to whether the money the West Blount Chamber received last year was provided by the commission, since it was paid from a special Community Service Fund within the overall general fund budget.

Stricklin returned to the subject of a specific formula for the split, indicating he would be flexible to the extent of considering an increase in the West Blount chamber amount in “the $8,000 to $10,000 range.” “I’m ready to move forward on this,” he said.

At that point, an argument flared up on an unrelated matter, and the commission did not return to the chamber funding split, except to accede to putting it on the commission business meeting agenda for a vote. And thus the lines were drawn for Monday, Oct. 21, at 9 a.m. in the commission boardroom at the courthouse, when presumably the matter will be voted upon and settled – for the present.