When the City of Great Bend took over management of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in January, city officials found troubling evidence as to how the CVB had been operated by long-time CVB Director Cris Collier. They were so concerned that they brought in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to probe the records for any improprieties, City Administrator Howard Partington said.
“There were things that we saw that bothered us,” he said. He referred to sparse record keeping and actions by Collier which, although probably not illegal, skirted common operational procedures.
“There’s questions there,” Partington said, adding issues first came to light when the city assumed responsibility for the CVB. But there had been some lingering suspicions among officials and City Council members who had long sought to gain more control over the agency.
Council members were also frustrated with what they saw as Collier’s nearly single-minded focus on the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway at the expense of promoting other Great Bend events and attractions. Their concerns led to placing the CVB under the city’s jurisdiction, which had been among their goals for the past few years.
Collier retired in December 2015 after 30 years of working at the CVB and her exit was the opportunity the city needed. Partington said he and City Clerk Amit Patel began scouring the financial information. However, they were stunned when they went to the CVB office to look for additional records.
“We were surprised there weren’t very many files there,” Partington said. They thought that after three decades, there should have been more.
So, they brought in City Attorney Bob Suelter and Police Chief Cliff Couch. “We agreed we needed an independent set of eyes to look (the records) over,” he said.
Enter the KBI. After a few weeks, the KBI turned its findings over to the Barton County Attorney’s Office who has yet to make a determination if charges are in order, Partington said.
“We’re not saying there’s corruption,” Partington said. “These are just things the city wouldn’t do.”
The Great Bend Tribune left a message on Collier’s cell phone. But, as of presstime, she had not returned the call.
The issues at hand
The problems with the CVB arose most recently during the council’s budget work session Monday night.
First, Partington said that before the city took over, the CVB Board sold a CVB car back to Collier for $2,000, even though the car was valued at $12,000 to 14,000. Giving such a “gift” is not an accepted practice.
Second, Partington said the CVB Board was planning to contract with Collier for $2,000 per month. However, city officials saw the contract and it contained scant provisions to hold her accountable for her work.
Partington said Mayor Mike Allison brought this up to board President Loren Unruh. The contract was never finalized.
Third, he said Collier was under contract with the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Goodland CVB while working for the Great Bend CVB. There is the chance she used Great Bend CVB credit cards for meals and fuel while on the job for her other employers.
However, “there is a lack of receipts,” he said. And some of the receipts they found don’t specify what they were for.
“They were not as strict on documentation as the city,” Partington said.
Partington said Collier put a large focus on birding and the byway, much to the consternation of the council. Council members felt there were many other local events that warranted her attention.
Part of the basis for her focus on the byway revolved around motel room occupancy, so city officials tested this by polling local motels. Looking at numbers from 2013 and they learned that birding and the byway accounted for 984 room nights.
At time, there were 500 rooms available in Great Bend with an average occupancy rate of 57 percent. Doing the math, that means on any given night that year, 214 rooms were full for a total room usage of 78,143.
In other words, Partington said birding and the byway accounted for 1.23 percent of the room usage. “A lot of money was being spent on birding and the byways for not much return.”
By comparison, Partington said three ball tournaments on three weekends accounted for at least half of what the birding did all year.
Although Partington said the birding is important to the area, but activities such as hunting draw more people to the area.
The status of the CVB now
When the city brought the CVB into it fold, it moved the office from its old location at the intersection of 10th and Monroe to a remodeled space in the Great Bend Convention Center. Emily Goad was hired as the CVB director and she answers to Community Coordinator Christina Hayes.
The result of this is that now the bureau will have to follow the city’s more strict record keeping policies.