In two and a half years, the Geary County Conventions and Visitors Bureau has spent roughly $20,000 at restaurants and grocery stores on food for assorted meetings, gatherings, and business trips.
A months-long investigation by the Junction City Union involving the review of thousands of pages of public records found the has routinely spent money on restaurant meals with little documentation of what those meals produced on behalf of taxpayers.
The agency typically brings in more than $600,000 a year in transient guest tax. These funds are generated by a 6% tax paid by people who stay overnight at Geary County hotels.
As Director, Michele Stimatze oversees this money. She answers to the Geary County Commission.
One of the commissioners is her husband Charles Stimatze. He told a Junction City Union reporter at a county commission meeting that he does not oversee or vote on anything to do with his wife.
“I do not vote on anything for her,” he said. “I abstain from it all.”
Michele Stimatze’s direct supervisors are ostensibly commissioners Keith Ascher and Brad Scholz.
Before March 2019, Michele Stimatze answered to an advisory board and county commissioners.
But March 4, 2019 the county commission voted unanimously to dissolve the advisory board. According to the county commission minutes, all three commissioners — including Charles Stimatze — voted.
This wasn’t the first time he voted on CVB matters.
In 2017, when the CVB was still under the umbrella of the Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce, Charles Stimatze was one of two votes in favor of pulling the CVB out of the Chamber and returning it to a county entity. Commissioner Keith Ascher voted in favor of removing the organization from the Chamber alongside Charles Stimatze. The late Commissioner Ben Bennett voted against the motion. There had been no prior public discussion of the matter, as indicated by minutes from the county.
Commission meeting minutes, which are available to the public on the county website, show he has voted on such issues since his wife became director. He also sits on executive sessions pertaining to the CVB.
According to Michele Stimatze, the advisory board was dissolved due to a frequent lack of quorum.
Minutes received from the CVB show there were four occasions from January 2018 through February 2019 when the board lacked a quorum. However, only one of those meeting was canceled. At two of them, according to the minutes, members cast votes with no indication the group reached its quorum after the meeting started.
This leaves oversight of the roughly half million dollars in transient guest tax funds to Michele Stimatze and ostensibly two of three county commissioners.
So where does this money go?
Following the Money
According to vouchers and receipts requested from the county through the Kansas Open Records Act, about $20,000 has gone to food of some sort.
According to Michele Stimatze, the food expenses fall into a variety of categories.
Prior to COVID-19, she and other CVB employees often traveled to trade shows and conventions. CVB funds paid for food for herself and those who traveled with her on these trips.
Among the food-related expenses was a receipt from a meal purchased when the CVB traveled to attend the Association of the United States Army meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2018. On the CVB dime, someone ordered a meal of oysters Rockefeller and stuffed salmon. With tip, the meal came to $61.80.
During this trip, vouchers also show that Charles Stimatze ordered room service multiple times, which the CVB picked up the tab for.
According to Michele Stimatze, they arranged this for reasons of practicality. She said they split the bill – the CVB paid for food and the county paid for lodging.
“So, if Charles is going and I'm going, they would pay room and board,” she said. “I may pay food. So it weighs out, because I'm not paying all the extra expenses. I'm not paying for another room.”
Michele Stimatze said she felt the CVB picking up food expenses was fair if the county paid for lodging. She said it would be foolish to pay for a room for each of them, as they’re a married couple.
“They paid the room nights, which are, I don’t know, $300 - $400 a night, which is ridiculous. So I got off cheaper,” Michele Stimatze said. “Think about it. So that's how that works. And I'm not staying with Keith and I'm not staying with (then-commissioner Ben Bennett) - I mean, you know. But if their spouses went, it could be the same way if they worked in another department with the county. I mean, that would be stupid for me to get another room. Why should it come out of my budget when I can just pay for the food? And then he paid for the room and board.”
As for other food expenses, Michele Stimatze said the CVB sponsors visitors from outside the county.
For example, in April 2019, the CVB paid just over $1,400 to Coach’s for a catered dinner during a gathering of county commissioners from around the state, according to Michele Stimatze. The group visited Godfrey’s, where the meal was served. The CVB also paid for more than $600 worth of ammunition for the event, which owner Todd Godfrey confirmed.
She said she considered this a positive investment, because the convention’s attendees stayed in a Junction City hotel for two or three nights, thereby generating transient guest tax. Michele Stimatze said she does not know the amount of transient guest tax generated by this event because she is not allowed to question receipts from local hoteliers.
“I do not know what the final numbers are,” she said. “I can't question them.”
The CVB’s purpose is to promote tourism in Geary County.
This can mean spending marketing money outside of the community in the hopes of drawing visitors in. Television commercials, billboards and sponsorships are among the tactics the CVB uses.
For example, the CVB pays $600 monthly for the Courtyard by Marriott’s billboard near the Chapman exit, as indicated by vouchers.
There are also sponsorships, including one for Kansas State University sports.
The CVB sponsors the football team for $3,200 a month.
She said such a sponsorship comes with a 30-second radio ad during each of the season’s 12 football games, one 10-second mention during the broadcasts of all 12 games and tickets to games.
A representative of Learfield IMG College, the service K-State uses for its sponsorships, said the sponsorship includes tickets, parking at the games and access to a suite.
When asked who made use of the suite, Michele Stimatze said, “whoever we invite to go, especially if we're looking at a group that we want to come in.”
The CVB uses the radio spots to promote the community during the games. She said they sponsor K-State sports because of the number of people who stay overnight in Geary County. According to Michele Stimatze, sports fans often choose to stay overnight in hotels here because it’s less expensive.
The contract requires the CVB to pay sponsorship money for a certain number of games, she said. When K-State played Navy in the Liberty Bowl in 2019 in Tennessee, they paid $1,330 as part of the contract.
According to Michele Stimatze, neither she nor anyone else attended this game because it took place out of state, which was too far to travel.
The CVB doesn’t mind traveling for events, if there’s a possibility of bringing in people to Geary County through conventions and trade shows it attends throughout the year.
It has a vehicle for that express purpose.
The CVB vehicle
In January, they purchased a 2018 Suburban, from Jim Clark Chevrolet for $35,250 to replace an older model van, which had been used for years to attend events out of town.
According to county commission minutes, the purchase was approved during a Jan. 13 meeting. County policy states for competitive purchases exceeding $5,000, county department heads must put purchases out for bids. However, neither the minutes from the January meeting nor a prior meeting in December where the vehicle was discussed said anything about a bid opening.
The Jan. 13 meeting minutes state, “Mrs. Stimatze stated at a previous meeting she discussed the need to purchase a different vehicle. She presented information about a vehicle that is available at Jim Clark Chevrolet. Commissioner Scholz moved to purchase the vehicle to promote tourism. Chairman Ascher seconded. Chairman Ascher and Commission Scholz both voted aye. Commissioner Stimatze abstained.”
The vehicle has sometimes been parked outside the CVB’s office in the building at 222 W. Sixth St. At this time, it isn’t parked at the office. The vehicle, she said, will soon have the CVB logo put on the back windows. In June, when asked where the vehicle was, Michele Stimatze said it was undergoing repairs for a cracked windshield. More recently, she said the vehicle had also needed repairs to the air conditioning.
However, she declined to say where the vehicle has been since June.
“I'm not going to say right now,” she said, when asked about the vehicle’s location. “It's safe right now.”
The vehicle has been seen parked in the Stimatzes’ driveway at their home in Junction City on multiple occasions.
Also in January, a voucher indicated payment of a Triple A membership in Michele Stimatze’s name.
As indicated by vouchers, the CVB also covers Michele and Charles Stimatze’s personal membership in the Lady Troopers.
To go back to food expenses again, numerous receipts popped up showing purchases at local fast food restaurants where one or two people had lunch at the CVB’s expense.
Some of these receipts were indicated as meetings.
When asked, an official with the county clerk’s office indicated the Union had received all of the financial documents it had requested.
County Clerk Rebecca Nordyke has cooperated with the Union on its requests for documents. However, documents received by the Union did not include several months’ worth of receipts from 2019. Also from 2019, there were several months where no vouchers were turned in.
An official with the county clerk’s office said their office had submitted everything they had received to the Union.
Potentially, some of these missing vouchers could show where, in 2019, the CVB contributed to work being done at Freedom Park, which overlooks I-70 and where Atomic Annie is located.
The National Guard did the work as part of its annual training.
Michele Stimatze said the CVB contributed “less than $10,000” for work at the park, but did not specify how the money was spent.
The CVB distributes transient guest tax funds to local organizations in the form of marketing grants. According to Michele Stimatze, the grants are presented to organizations that encourage overnight stays – that put “heads in beds,” as the saying goes.
“We have marketing grants, we have community support grants that we’ll do at the beginning of the year,” she said. “Everything that we do has to have overnight stays - that has to do with tourism and the operation of tourism.”
It’s all about bringing in outside dollars.
“We bring people into the community, they spend the night, they buy food, you know, fuel, all that kind of stuff after they're done with their events, and they go back home,” Michele Stimatze said.
There is low return on investment for community events, she said, because while those events can boost quality of life, they may not directly result in overnight stays. The CVB chooses to take part in such events, but they’re not the main focus, she said.
“We have one mission, and that is to bring people into our hotels, have them spend the night and then send them back,” Michele Stimatze said.
Sometimes events that are expected to bring in a large amount of transient guest tax fail to do so.
For example, a recent cycling event, which the CVB sponsored for $10,000, failed to generate overnight stays, something Michele Stimatze admits was a poor investment. The idea had been that riders would come in for the multi-day event and stay overnight.
But that’s not what happened.
“Some of them just drove in, and they went back home and then came back the next day,” she said.
The voucher authorizing the $10,000 for this event was the only one signed by a county commissioner out of the two and a half years’ worth of vouchers requested by the Union.
All other vouchers were only signed by the county clerk or someone from her office and Michele Stimatze herself.
The voucher for the cycling event was signed by Charles Stimatze.
County vouchers have a line where the commission chairperson is supposed to sign off on the expense. However, on all but this one of the CVB’s vouchers, these lines are left blank.
Transient guest tax levels
In 2015, the transient guest tax was raised from 5% to 6% for a proposed sports complex project which never came to fruition.
In the two and a half years since Michele Stimatze has been director, transient guest tax has brought in more than $1.7 million.
Michele Stimatze said the CVB has money laid aside for emergencies such as the current pandemic, but she has lowered her budget for next year.
She said COVID-19 has driven down Geary County’s transient guest tax levels as more people have chosen to remain at home and not travel. It has fluctuated between 40 and 60 percent down each month since the pandemic hit Kansas.
“We have a lot of business travel, you know, but we also have contractors that come in this time of the year and do a lot of work out at Fort Riley,” Michele Stimatze said. “They spend the night too, you know, in the hotels. We had a lot of groups, business conventions, meetings, conferences that were booked for this year. I mean, you name it, it cut the slice out.”
She said COVID-19 hit the hotel industry hard, causing layoffs and furloughs across the country, including in Geary County.
There are 21 registered transient guest tax accounts in Geary County, according the Kansas Department of Revenue. Nearly all the properties that collect transient guest tax are in Junction City.