By Linda Creason
Since at least mid December, there has been an initiative put forth to the McAlester City Council to donate $66,000 of McAlester tourism dollars to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC). Mayor (Kevin) Priddle proposed this to the council with the stated purpose being to provide the DOC with the funding it needs to repair the rodeo arena at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary so the annual Prison Rodeo can continue.
I don’t oppose the holding of the Prison Rodeo, but I do oppose donating city tourism dollars to a state agency which we as taxpayers already fund. This proposal seems to be promoted and justified from the position that the rodeo brings in unspecified thousands of dollars of additional revenue to the local merchants and trickles down to the collection of additional sales tax for the city. I disagree. Even the Chamber’s own figures provided to the city council show that the only real profit from this event is realized by the Chamber itself. Neither the city nor the DOC are shown as being reimbursed for any out of pocket expenses incurred as a result of sponsoring the rodeo. There was also no significant change in motel stays from 2009 to 2010. This indicates to me that many of the people who attend the rodeo live within one day’s driving distance and do not stay overnight in McAlester motels.
Are we as citizens expected to believe that at a time when the DOC is considering budget cuts, employee furloughs, and the State of Oklahoma has just two dollars in the Rainy Day Fund, that the DOC will work $80,000-$100,000 additional dollars into its budget for guard overtime, inmate transportation, and potential inmate medical bills so that McAlester can bring in a few extra tourism dollars? I don’t think so. Even the most naïve city council member should realize that the DOC will require much more than our initial investment of $66,000 dollars and the additional funds will probably have to come from the McAlester taxpayers.
Let’s get past the façade that the Prison Rodeo is a financial bonanza for many of the McAlester merchants and call the rodeo what it really is: an annual fundraiser for the McAlester Chamber of Commerce and a source of entertainment for McAlester area residents. Neither of which is bad in itself, but from a business and taxpayer standpoint, is it something that we want to keep funding from year to year? Is there nothing else that our tourism dollars can be better spent on? We don’t need air conditioning improvements at the Expo Center? How about additional parking, paying off any existing Expo loans, or increased Expo statewide promotion to bring in additional tourism dollars in the long term rather than a one weekend short term return?
What about Chamber of Commerce funding? Should our tourism dollars go to fund the Chamber? This is the second time within a year that a proposal has been put forth for the city to donate money to a Chamber associated expense. Has the Chamber, like our local economic development organization, become increasingly dependent on the taxpayers for much of their operating expenses or is the new-found tendency to come to the city an indirect result of the mayor being on the Chamber’s Board of Directors? I don’t know, but if this continues, it would seem to me that it may be time for the issue to be presented to the McAlester voters. Currently, the McAlester motel tax that generates the tourism dollars is at 4 cents. This is fairly low compared to other Oklahoma cities. Muskogee recently increased their motel tax to 8 cents with some of that going directly to fund their Chamber of Commerce.
However the Chamber funding is decided, two things are clear to me. The city should not be funding a state agency for any reason, including the Prison Rodeo, and the McAlester Chamber of Commerce should be looking to their own members for support rather than coming in the back door and seeking taxpayer funding. If the Chamber can justify taxpayer funding, then let’s put it to a vote. Until then, the city council should keep the checkbook closed.