Between 2010 and 2014, the Geneva BID received an average of $144,000 of taxpayer money per year from a combination of BID levies and city grants. Then came a little bit of scrutiny, and things got interesting.
Read [Part 1] and [Update to Part 1] of the Geneva BID series
In 2014, after some questions were raised by at least one City Councilor regarding the City’s relationship with and funding of the BID, the City Council decided to hold their non-profit partners to a higher standard of accountability. Rather than rubber-stamping dollar amounts to be divvied up among the many vitally important organizations in the City, Geneva’s leadership would require representatives from these groups to stand before City Council and the community and present examples of progress toward their program objectives in order to justify their requests for funds from each new City Budget.
That same year, the BID received $70,000 ($35,000 plus an extra $35,000 for ‘downtown detailing’) in the 2015 City Budget, the largest amount ever allocated to the BID in its history.
How to Win Friends and Make Money While Wearing Your Weekend Barbecue Outfit
On August 5, 2015, Executive Director John Hicks spoke to the Geneva City Council on to ask the City to continue funding the BID in 2016. The City of Geneva’s website provides the minutes from this meeting.
Mr. Hicks took the podium wearing shorts and a baseball cap, appropriate attire for a summer afternoon running errands, but an unusual getup for the Executive Director of the Geneva Business District Association to don while formally requesting taxpayer funding from City Government. He didn’t remove the ball cap as he read from his prepared statement.
Hicks began his plea with a glowing description of his most-cited “accomplishment,” the part-time “Two Men and a Truck” downtown cleanup effort.
Then, he offered the following:
“Mr. Hicks said the employees and directors are rewarded constantly by the citizens of Geneva commenting how nice the district looks, along with people who have been away from Geneva and return that often remark remarking how good the City looks. He noted this is because of the partnerships and support of City Council, the City Manager, Department of Public Works, volunteers and non- volunteers assigned to the Geneva BID.”
So, to legitimize a request for tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, Hicks shared an anecdote, then added a generous helping of flattery.
Next up was a declaration of purpose:
“He said their primary responsibility is assisting in the recruitment of new businesses, responsible tenants and supporting existing downtown businesses. This includes describing funding opportunities, accompanying prospects to potential locations, and introducing them to the colleges, hospital, schools, neighborhoods and culture of the City.”
He provided zero examples and absolutely no evidence that these “primary” services are performed with any regularity.
Is there a list of business prospects who have been given this grand tour of the City by Hicks and Co.? How many of these are done each year? Have the recipients of these tours been asked for feedback? Is there a list of businesses that have benefited from these services provided by the BID?
Has anyone from the City ever seriously looked into these claimed services?
Hicks went on:
“He added maintenance of City streets, sidewalks, trash receptacles, clean curbsides, holiday baskets and décor are all part of their duties, as they maintain an aggressive approach toward the back of the city storefronts and apartments.”
Until 2013, the BID’s official mission statement, which they must provide to the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau and on their tax returns in order to maintain their non-profit status, was this:
ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN AND PRESERVATION; ECONOMIC PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT; BUSINESS RECRUITMENT, RETENTION, MARKETING, PROMOTION AND UNIFICATION.
Why would the City fund the BID for downtown maintenance if cleaning the downtown isn’t even part of the BID’s mission?
Because in 2014, the following information was added to the BID’s mission as related to their non-profit status:
IN ADDITION, CLEANING SIDEWALKS, PARKING LOTS, EMPTY TRASH RECEPTACLES, WATER FLOWERS AND HANGING BASKETS, AND ADMINISTER GRANTS.
It appears that if John Hicks was going to boast about the low-wage part-time cleanup crew under his direction in order to justify the BID being handed around $144,000 each and every year, that cleanup crew would need to actually to be a part of the BID’s mission, now that the City had started paying attention.
“Cruisin’ Night and Light-Up Geneva Auction are two annual events that Mr. Hicks pointed out as being quite beneficial to the City in terms of attracting business, sales tax, economic growth and tourism.”
The BID doesn’t need taxpayer money to support these events and they are completely unrelated to the BID’s request for funding from the City. Both of these events, according to the BID’s own tax returns, generate a net profit. They don’t need a single penny from the City Budget in order to hold these events, so to cite them as part of a request for funding is borderline deceptive.
“Mr. Hicks said the Geneva BID and the Chamber share space, employees and programs in an effort to maximize resources, noting together they have co-sponsored Business of the Month promotions.”
The ‘Business of the Month promotions’ consist of representatives from the BID and Chamber handing a printed and framed certificate to a selected business owner each month, taking a photo, and…well, that’s about it.
And what was Mr. Hicks big closing statement to City Council to justify the average of $144,000 that the City hands the BID each year?
“Mr. Hicks read an excerpt from an email he recently received from a person who hasn’t visited Geneva in four years asking, “How have you done it?” Mr. Hicks said it isn’t how he has done it but rather how you (City Council and staff) have done it.”
While offering more anecdotal evidence and a dash of flattery, John Hicks is right about one thing: when anyone asks him “how have you done it,” the most honest reply would be “I haven’t.”
After this presentation by John Hicks, the Geneva City Council approved a total of $44,500 in taxpayer money ($25,000 plus another $19,500 for ‘detailing downtown) to be allocated to the BID in the 2016 City Budget.
Let’s review John Hicks’ persuasive formula that convinced City Council to open the City’s collective wallet:
- Boast about keeping the downtown clean
- Tell an anecdote, use flattery
- Tell another anecdote
- Boast some more about keeping the downtown clean
- Brag about two self-funded events that don’t require funding from the taxpayers
- Gloat about giving away twelve framed certificates per year
- Tell another anecdote and use more flattery
In a few weeks, the Geneva City Council will hear the annual presentations from their non-profit partners asking for funding in the 2017 City Budget. It’s unclear whether John Hicks or incoming Executive Director Amanda Airth will be making the presentation. Regardless, we should all be watching closely to see whether or not the presenter provides more verifiable and useful information than in previous years, and whether or not the City Council decides to ask for more substantial reasons to fund the BID yet again.
Light(en) Up (Your Wallets,) Geneva
Another issue that was touched on in Part 1 is BID’s annual “Light Up Geneva Auction.” This fundraiser, which generates money for the purchase of holiday lights which are then displayed around the Business Improvement District, depends upon the public to purchase auctioned items, and the business community (and others) to donate items for auction.
Between 2008 and 2013, the BID “Light Up Geneva Auction” raised a net total of $42,285.
Between 2008 and 2013, the BID spent $23,347 on holiday lights.
This means that only 55% of the money raised during a 6 year time frame was spent on holiday lights. Even if they are given a year to catch up and they spent another $3,891 dollars on lights in 2014 (the average amount spent annually on holiday lights from 2008-2013), that’s still means that they only spent 64% of the of the money raised on holiday lights.
If the BID has no issue with raising tens of thousands of dollars from the public for holiday lights but only spending about half of that money on holiday lights, what might that tell us about how they operate in general?
Get Out of Bed with the BID
The citizens of Geneva deserve a detailed list of BID accomplishments relating to the original mission statement. Non-profit organizations must show that they are actually using their hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the pursuit of their mission, and if the City of Geneva was not holding the BID accountable to their mission statement through the year 2013, then the taxpayers just might be due a refund.
City Council must undertake a public and transparent examination of the role of the BID in order to decide whether or not the City needs to continue its relationship with the organization. No more vague declarations of ‘success’ and no more citing ‘successful events’ that do not require taxpayer dollars and no more hiring part-time work crews and making them responsible for keeping our critically important downtown clean and appealing.
While the City of Geneva has gained more control of its finances over the past couple of years, tightening belts and cutting costs, there has not been an authentic evaluation of the BID’s funding and effectiveness.
It’s time to move past the BID model of downtown revitalization, which serves primarily to benefit a small number of investors, and instead find novel and equitable ways to provide needed services that will help to continue downtown’s ongoing renaissance.
Editor’s note: I’ve received some new information today and it now looks like there will be a ‘Part 3’ in this series, so stay tuned!