Mayor leads push to strip Gilroy Welcome Center of funding

Gilroy Mayor Don Gage.

GILROY—In a move that was a “total surprise” to the leadership of the Gilroy Welcome Center, Mayor Don Gage led a push Monday night to slash $200,000 from the organization that promotes tourism, the city and its businesses around the world and redirect the money to the city’s general fund to support activities for at-risk youth.
Denying he’s playing politics, Gage says it’s time to cut public support of the center and spend on youth activities instead.
The council voted 4-3 at the May 11 study session, with Council Members Cat Tucker, Dion Bracco and Roland Velasco dissenting, to have city staff redo the budget with more money for gang prevention and recreation for at-risk youth.
The move came as the council closes in on completion of Gilroy’s $48 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17.
The decision is not final and awaits the final budget vote June 1. However, if approved as presented, the move would dramatically change the way the Welcome Center operates.
“If you choose to reduce (funding) by $200,000, we’re looking at whether the Welcome Center can even operate,” Welcome Center Executive Director Jane Howard told the council.
During the meeting, City Finance Director Christina Turner gave a presentation to the council detailing the increases in sales tax, property tax and transient occupancy tax receipts over the past five to six years. The city is seeing an increasingly active development climate, Turner said, and is planning on hiring at least a dozen new employees.
To Gage, the city has met its commitment to help the Welcome Center, formerly known as the Gilroy Visitors Center, get situated in its location at the Gilroy Premium Outlets and start helping to bring in more tourism-related tax dollars.
“I think it’s time we share some of that income to keep the city well-rounded,” Gage said, before making what he called his first motion in his 34 years as an elected official.
However, the mayor says the city is “short of money” and will only have $50,000 or so to spare by 2017.
“It’s not like we’re just fat and happy and have all kinds of money,” Gage told the Dispatch this week. The move to better fund activities for at-risk youth and gang prevention programs, he said, is necessary to ensure youth don’t fall into a life of crime, eventually increasing the amount of money the city needs to spend hiring more police officers.
Councilwoman Cat Tucker, also a member of the Welcome Center’s Board of Directors, took aim Monday night at Gage’s understanding of the city’s fiscal outlook and warned against “fear mongering” and taking for granted the amount of tourism the center helps generate.
“I don’t want to give the impression to citizens we are going to die if we don’t have this money,” she said, pointing out the city recently expanded its offering of recreation programs. “Excuse me, but we’re increasing our police in the budget.”
She added, “I don’t dispute the fact at all we need to invest in anti-gang programs; I dispute taking it from here (the Welcome Center budget). There are other areas we can take it from if it’s that dire. I don’t think taking it from the Welcome Center, which produces so much in regards to tourism, is the wise choice.”
As presented in the budget, the Gilroy Police Department will see the addition of two sworn officers, a public safety communicator, detention services officer and another sworn officer whose first year on the job will be funded by a national grant from the Office for Traffic Safety.
Other city departments also are slated to see an increase in headcount in the new budget year. They include a building inspector, plan check engineer, six maintenance workers and others.
A new recreation coordinator will beef up programs for at-risk youth, according to the city finance director.
The city also received a $2 million grant this year; Gage said it would help increase recreational activities for at-risk youth. But he says its not enough—and it’s “pay now or pay later” when it comes to investing in youth.
It’s time to take the training wheels off and wean the Welcome Center off public funding, according to Gage.
“You can’t depend on government to continue to give every year on certain things,” he added. “People should never depend on the government for continual funding. When our priorities change, that money is going to go away.”
Tucker suggested to instead look at how many city employees receive car allowance designed to help offset travel-related expenses and the city’s growing fleet of new vehicles.
Based on the budget proposal, the city fleet will grow by dozens of vehicles, including Toyota Prius hybrids, SUVs and minivans at a cost of nearly $1 million. Tucker said that’s an opportunity to rein in spending.
But Gage counters that every aspect of the budget has been looked over with a fine-tooth comb.
The Welcome Center’s Howard said the mayor’s position on their funding request came as a “total surprise.”
“People don’t just come to Gilroy; it takes a very focused effort,” she said.
Advertising comprises about 80 percent of the center’s annual budget and includes print ads in Sunset Magazine, for example, touting the Gilroy Garlic Festival and marketing far beyond the Bay area, she said. Salaries and administrative overhead account for at most 13 percent of the budget, Howard said, and the center has just two full-time employees.
“When the budget came out and there was a recommendation for continued support, there was a balanced budget and there were dollars available to continue the funding. So why that changed, I do not know,” Howard added.
Howard’s nephew, Eric Howard of Bruce’s Tire, formed a campaign committee during the most recent election to oppose the city’s now-failed sales tax measure, Measure F, which would have increased the city sales tax rate from 8.75 to 9.25 percent—the highest in all of Santa Clara County. Jane’s husband Al Howard also enlisted in the fight.
Gage denied any link between the Howard’s opposition to the measure he fought for and the budget flip-flop.
After uttering a long “no,” he said, “I don’t hold grudges. The people spoke and we have to do the best we can do. What that means is in areas where we feel we need more money, something has to be cut. There’s no fat. That’s going to happen whether Measure F passed or not.”
“I feel better because I asked the people and they said ‘no.’ When I have to do the things I have to do to keep this city running, with police protection and everything else, I’m not going to have a guilty conscience. I know that if they want it, it’s going to have to come out of something—and something has to get cut,” he added.
Gage said he now plans to meet with Jane Howard and to explain his motivations.
Howard said she remains optimistic and will discuss with the center’s board and lodging partners about possible ways to keep the center in operation.
“When the budget came out and there was a recommendation for continued support, there was a balanced budget and there were dollars available to continue the funding. So why that changed, I do not know.”
-Jane Howard, Welcome Center executive director

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