By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
In the midst of the Broward Inspector General’s Office investigation of city management practices, Hallandale Beach’s bus bench/shelter advertising agreement has come under fire.
The advertising pact has drawn critics because all the public money collected under the agreement, as well as additional dollars from city coffers, have gone to the Hallandale Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
The gift from City Hall amounted to $50,000 last year, with an additional $50,000 expected this year.
“That sounds too much like a sweetheart deal,” activist Charlotte Greenbarg said of the city’s latest bench/shelter payments to the chamber. “It sounds incestuous. Why are they giving taxpayer’s money to the chamber?”
Mayor Joy Cooper and a chamber official defended the city’s bus/shelter and payments to the business organization. They have been “a way to help the chamber,” Cooper said.
Meanwhile, the chamber is showing its support for the mayor as she seeks re-election by urging attendance at a “meet and greet” breakfast reception with her on Friday.
The event is sponsored by the Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach Hotel, which has a representative on both the chamber’s board of directors and its board of trustees.
City commissioner Keith London, who is running for mayor against Cooper, criticized the chamber in comments emailed to supporters on Monday.
“Three months before the election, your tax funded Hallandale Chamber of Commerce is holding an event exclusively for the mayor,” he said. “This event should include all candidates running for office running in Hallandale Beach; or perhaps the entire city commission…Singling out one elected official, particularly so close to an election, is entirely inappropriate.”
BUS BENCHES AND THE CITY
Hallandale Beach’s bus bench payments to the chamber dates back more than a half century to 1956, said Patricia Genetti, the chamber’s chief executive officer and executive director.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between the chamber, the city and the residents,” Genetti said. “The city wanted to help the chamber…to support the chamber.”
The city now funnels to the chamber revenue it receives from its deal with a private bus bench company, Martin-Gold Coast LLC. The company owns and maintains all bus shelters and bus benches in the city. The city gives it right-of-way authority to place benches and shelters in exchange for either a fixed fee for every bench and shelter or a percent of gross advertising revenues, whichever is greater.
Prior to the deal with Martin-Gold Coast, the chamber managed bus benches in the city. From 2008-2010, the chamber reported receiving an average of $15,300 a year in bus bench revenue.
The city further subsidizes the chamber by allowing it to have about 400 square feet of office space in city hall next to the commission’s meeting room for $1 a month. The city also provides the chamber’s office with electricity at no charge.
A copy of the city’s two-year old office lease agreement with the chamber was recently turned over to the Broward Inspector General’s Office as part of its ongoing investigation of city management practices. The IG is also looking into city grants and contributions to non-profit community organizations.
Last year, Hallandale Beach received $33,370 from its bus bench and shelter advertising agreement with Martin-Gold Coast LLC. It sent the entire amount to the chamber, plus an additional $16,630 in city funds.
Through June of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the city has collected $30,580 from the agreement and turned it all over to the chamber, according to city records. The city may have to kick in additional funds if it intends to pay the chamber $50,000, as it did last year.
With $100,000 over the past two years from the agreement, the chamber will have received approximately $170,000 in city money in the past four years. This includes a $50,000 “donation” and nearly $18,000 for conducting a business survey for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
Since 2002, city payments to the chamber have reached approximately $240,000 for such other purposes as conducting economic development programs on behalf of the city.
An October 25, 2010 city memorandum stated the annual payment up to $50,000 to the chamber under the new agreement was in lieu of the city’s annual contribution to the chamber and revenue the chamber previously had received when it operated the bus bench program.
Commissioner London is critical of the giveaway to the chamber.
“For decades the city has been greasing the wheels and has nothing to show for it,” said London, who wants to halt the various payments to the chamber. “They should be self sufficient.”
Martin-Gold Coast manages 23 shelters and 65 bus benches. It’s agreement with the city has a section that states the city intends to pay the chamber up to $50,000 from revenues it receives from the company.
However, the agreement states the payments are at “the city’s discretion and provided that the chamber shall work with local businesses and adjacent property owners to obtain any necessary easements for the placement of bus shelters and otherwise cooperate with the city and contractor in implementing this program.”
THE CITY SIDE OF THE DEAL
When asked what the chamber has done to earn, the chamber’s Genetti said it had done such work.
Genetti added that the chamber conducts or supports numerous activities that benefit the city and the community at large. Last year, she said the chamber paid $16,000 to 10,000 business directories and $4,000 more to pay for 10,000 tourist maps and guide booklets.
She also sent Broward Bulldog a one-page document outlining 32 functions the chamber supports that benefit the city “at no cost.”
The chamber is a tax-exempt, 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. It has approximately 250 member businesses comprised of over 1,000 persons. Annual dues range from $250 to $2,000-plus, Genetti said.
She said other Broward cities subsidize their local chambers of commerce.
For example, in Southwest Broward, where the Miramar-Pembroke Pines Chamber of Commerce operates, that support comes from membership fees and amount to far fewer tax dollars.
A chamber spokesman there said each city pays an annual membership fee of approximately $5,000, but there is no other direct budget payments. However, each city supports variouis promotional and business events at an annual cost of about $60,000, primarily through event ticket purchases, the spokesman said.
While the Hallandale chamber’s involvement in bus benches dates back years, a formalized agreement was made in 1994 that allowed the chamber to install and maintain bus benches. In return, the chamber retained all proceeds from bench advertising.
The agreement was amended and extended over the years, and in 2003 the city gave the Hallandale chamber “perpetual” rights to bus bench operations and revenues and allowed the chamber to subcontract the benches and advertising for revenue for the organization.
In 2003, the city also gave Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. authority to place bus shelters around the city, with a fee paid to the city for each shelter, which carried advertising space. In response to a request for information about Clear Channel payments to the city, city information chief Dobens could only provide data for 2008-2009, stating it was to pay $25,400.
As Clear Channel’s agreement expired, and the firm indicated it was no longer interested in continuing, the city sought to have one company manage both the bus benches and shelters. That led to a contract in November 2010 with Martin-Gold Coast to handle both bus benches and shelters, as well as the provision that the city will pay the chamber up to $50,000 annually.