Investigation: Tax dollars fund bonus, trips, etc. - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Investigation: Tax dollars fund bonus, trips, etc.

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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

An On Your Side investigation revealed that when people dine at a restaurant or stay at a hotel in Hattiesburg, they’re helping fund a $30,000 bonus for the executive director of the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission. This bonus sits on top of a $208,404 base salary. 

This new information comes after a 2015 On Your Side investigation, where credit card receipts showed high-end, hotels, meals and alcohol funded by tax dollars. 

Rick Taylor is the recipient the salary, and he’s also responsible for how $4.5 million in annual tax dollars are spent. While two boards regulate Taylor, the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission and the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, a paper trail of emails, claims dockets and receipts indicate that he receives minimal scrutiny from the board. 

The spending is all made possible by a law passed in 1991. A 2 percent tax is imposed on restaurants, hotels and motels. The tax on restaurants has no repeal date. 

In its 25-year run of collecting an average of $4 million a year, the tax has allotted an estimated $100 million to the Lake Terrace Convention and Tourism Commission, to help grow the city's tourism industry.  

The concerns highlighted in our investigation last year were not the first time that they were brought to the board’s attention.   

Seven on Your Side recently obtained an internal memo sent from King CPA, PLLC to all tourism board members in January of 2015.  The CPA pointed out two areas of concern:   

  • Policy and procedures regarding Miss Hospitality gifts  
  • Policy and procedures regarding meals for local meetings.  

When WDAM brought the same concerns to Executive Director Rick Taylor in March 2015, he defended their spending habits.  

“We know we don’t do things in what might be seen as a typical manner, but our results aren’t typical,” Taylor said. 

In recent months, Seven on your Side combed through thousands of documents, and it’s clear the commission did change how alcohol is purchased. Itemized receipts show Taylor now paying for alcoholic beverages out of his own pocket, something that wasn’t happening before we started asking questions. 

WDAM reached out to Tourism Commission Vice-Chairman Catherine Price for an explanation to why the board didn't make any major changes. Price declined our interview, and referred us to Convention Commission board member Bud Kirkpatrick. 

Kirkpatrick said he doesn’t see any issues with how money is spent.  

“There has to be some latitude among the different people and how they spend,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think they are very conservative and very well monitored,"  

Through more records requests, WDAM discovered that those spending habits include a continued annual trip to New York City as part of the Miss Hospitality prize package and high-end gifts for the pageant winner and board members.  

In years past, Price, a board member partially responsible for Taylor’s salary and bonus, has been invited on the trip as a chaperone for the Miss Hospitality winner. 

We asked Kirkpatrick about how board members are selected for trips.  

"I've never been to any Miss Hospitality trips," Kirkpatrick said. "They may go. I don't know." 

Email exchanges between Price and Taylor show that she had concerns about taking another trip to New York after our 2015 investigation, writing, “You are very vulnerable right now and even though you can rationalize in your own mind why this works, I cannot...So, as much as I love the idea of a trip to New York with the Taylors, I must decline.”  

Price eventually went on the trip, but only after Taylor offered to pay for it out of his own pocket.  

On April 19th, 2015 Taylor wrote, "Just want to confirm that you will join Vicki and me in NYC as our guest." 

Excluding Price, the New York trip cost taxpayers almost $15,000, including many gifts for the Miss Hospitality pageant winner including a $119 watch, a $156 pair of sunglasses and a $324 purse and a few smaller items such as a $50 necklace, six tassel bracelets and a 3D puzzle.  

Kirkpatrick said he is okay with taxpayer money going to presents for the pageant winner and board members. 

“I think for the benefit that we get from the Miss Hospitality pageant and the notoriety to our city and to our state for that person who travels,” Kirkpatrick said, “I think yes, they should be given some nice prizes.” 

WDAM questioned Kirkpatrick why those items weren’t purchased locally. He said he wasn't sure. 

“I don’t know why that choice was made,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think it was because of the position and status of something coming from Tiffany’s and Miss Hospitality being able to go into Tiffany’s and make a selection.” 

As the executive director, Taylor often goes on trips like the one made to New York. It’s a perk in addition to a $30,000 bonus that he has gotten every year since being employed by the commission, according to Kirkpatrick.  

Twice, we submitted records request to Taylor about his total compensation, once specifically asking about any bonuses. Both times he responded that he makes around $210,000 in an annual salary, failing to disclose the bonus. 

However, digging through more emails revealed the hidden bonus. Kirkpatrick confirmed that Taylor’s total compensation of $238,404 last year, including a $30,000 bonus.  

He said that for what the residents of Hattiesburg are getting from Taylor, it’s money well spent.  

“I don’t think it’s too high for what we’re getting for our money," Kirkpatrick said, "When you look at what our community is getting for that… the expertise and the drive and determination for our community to bring people here.” 

As for the standards Taylor is required to meet to get that bonus, it’s a gut-call by the board.  

"The quality of Rick's work, the entities that he has brought into being since he's been here... He is due that bonus for the great job that he does," Kirkpatrick said.

Copyright WDAM 2016. All rights reserved.

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