State Representative Steve Wolens of Oak Cliff says something is fishy about how the Convention & Visitors Bureau of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce receives and uses the city’s 7 percent hotel/motel bed tax. The tax raises almost $17 million a year, two-thirds of which is used to pay off convention center debt, with the other third going to the CVB, The Dallas City Council, in 1969. contracted with the Dallas chamber to spend the hotel/motel tax, and the CVB began using it to attract more tourists and conventions to Dallas.
Wolens claims that the council delegated all authority to the chamber without insisting on any accountability for the funds and how they are used. According to Wolens, who is an attorney, this is a moral violation of the trust that the public places in elected officials to oversee the use of tax money. He filed a bill in February that would require, among other things, full and detailed public disclosure of how the hotel/motel tax is used-a bill specifically aimed at the Dallas chamber. “The Dallas chamber’s only accountability” says Wolens, ’”is more of an overview accounting, rather than a specific accounting.”
Richard Upton, the new president of the chamber, promises a detailed audit of the CVB will be delivered to the city by the end of the year, regardless of Wolens’s bill. “I’m a believer that you need that kind of stewardship.” says Upton. “Especially since it’s tax money.” But in the past, the chamber has been its own steward. A May 1988 audit by City Auditor Daniel Paul concluded that “Contract terms in respect to submission of. . .line item budgets are not being complied with” by the CVB. And Wolens says, “They still don’t do a detailed analysis of how they spend the money.”
Wolens’s bill would also prohibit governmental bodies from letting nongovernmental bodies spend tax money without the control of elected officials. “The discretion [to spend the money| is left totally up to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “Dallas is the only place where this is happening, at least the only one that does it with this much money.”
Council member Jerry Bar-tos thinks the bill is a good idea, but says that Wolens is “going to come in second” behind the City Council. He says he has directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance requiring the budget of the CVB to be open to the public. That ordinance should go to the full council for a vote this month.
“We have contracted with the chamber of commerce for so long that I have to consider it part of the city government,” says Bartos. “Many governments have [convention and tourism promotion) as part of City Hall. And those records must be a part of the open records.” But Wolens says he is not sure how far the council is willing to go on this matter, and that he will be watching the process closely. “I would prefer them doing it on their own.” he says. “But if they won’t, we’ll make them.”