Last Wednesday, the Oro Valley Town Council voted to eliminate town funding for the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce.
“We didn’t anticipate this,” said Ramon Gaanderse, the chamber’s new president and chief executive officer.
The group had been recommended to receive $27,500 from the town in fiscal 2009, but now could get nothing.
Council members, with the exception of Mayor Paul Loomis and Councilman Al Kunisch, agreed to change the funding recommendation that later will be voted on when the council approves the fiscal 2009 budget.
Members who supported the move said they decided to slash the chamber’s funding because it had stepped out of bounds by meddling in town politics.
“They went beyond what the chamber should be doing,” said Councilman K.C. Carter. “They got into the political arena, and that’s a very foolish mistake on their part.”
Councilman Barry Gillaspie also supported the funding cut, citing his concern that the organization had used public money for its political activities.
“If they’re a business advocacy group, they should get their money from businesses,” Gillaspie said.
The council members’ concerns stem from the chamber’s political action committee, which during the recent town council election endorsed former Councilman Terry Parish, who lost his bid for re-election.
The group’s PAC bought an advertisement endorsing Parish’s election in the April 16 edition of The Explorer. That ad read, in part, “(We are) pleased to endorse the re-election of Oro Valley Council Member Terry Parish.” It lauded Parish as a “vocal advocate for the business community.”
The PAC also bought ads in The Explorer endorsing Councilman Kunisch and council hopeful Don Cox during the 2006 campaign.
“I think it’s wrong to use government money to fund a group’s political activities,” Gillaspie said.
Gaanderse said the group’s PAC is funded separately from the chamber’s general operating budget, and that the two basically operate as separate entities.
“We can’t move funds from the general fund to the PAC, it’s illegal,” Gaanderse said.
Councilman Kunisch agreed, and added that money the chamber has received from the town has been well-spent, providing information for people about Oro Valley and helping businesses that want to relocate or open branches in the town.
“They’re providing a service to the town,” Kunisch said.
The councilman said the $27,500 the town pays to the chamber could not pay the salary of a town employee tasked with accomplishing what the organization does for Oro Valley.
Councilwoman Salette Latas said the town pays for similar services from Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I guess we’re paying for the same service more than once,” Latas said.
The possible elimination of town support for the chamber has left Gaanderse baffled.
“What perception are we getting from the council now?” Gaanderse asked. “Are they saying, ‘We are not supporting business.’”
The chamber president said there appeared to be a degree of “political gamesmanship” on the part of some council members.
Councilman Gillaspie said in a later interview that he didn’t view the funding cut as political decision.
“My issue was that I felt disenfranchised that the town is giving money to a group that is advocating for political issues that I may not agree with,” Gillaspie said. “It’s been an issue for me ever since I’ve been elected.”
In June 2007, Carter and Gillaspie were part of a unanimous vote to approve the chamber’s current contract. That agreement expires at the end of this month.
Carter and Gillaspie said at the time they didn’t have the votes to cut off the chamber.
Carter said his vote to eliminate chamber funding was also influenced by the town’s budget constraints.
Councilmen Bill Garner and Gillaspie cited similar concerns about town finances.
“The status quo has to change because we’re in a tougher financial period,” Garner said.
The chamber will have an opportunity to plead its case to council members before the final budget vote July 16.
“I think there’s a real disconnect to what’s going on,” Gaanderse said.
He said the group would try to contact council members before the budget approval to discuss the future of the chamber-town relationship.
The final budget vote is scheduled for July 16.