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Business owners question Downtown Lodi Business Partnership closure

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Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:00 am

Downtown business owner Ken Pratt says he's upset that he paid his annual dues to the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership in January, yet he won't be getting a full year's service from the organization.

"I paid my dues to an organization that stopped existing three months after," said Pratt, owner of Stooges, a bar on West Pine Street. "Not that they did that much."

The partnership is in the process of disbanding after serving Downtown Lodi businesses for more than 13 years. The first step toward disbanding will be tonight, when the Lodi City Council considers issuing a resolution of intent to discontinue the DLBP.

Meanwhile, Pratt said Tuesday he was upset that the partnership expected business owners to pay dues while it may have known it would disband shortly after receiving payment.

City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said the financially strapped DLBP was faced with either increasing annual dues charged to Downtown business owners, or disbanding.

Jaime Watts, DLBP's executive director until March 1, said that revenue paid in January was used to pay off bills incurred in 2012, such as the office rental, utilities and Watts' salary.

Watts and Schwabauer didn't have specific figures on Tuesday regarding the DLBP's financial obligations, but Schwabauer said he would make them available today.

The business organization's board of directors voted on Feb. 11 to disband. The Lodi Chamber of Commerce will take over the Downtown Lodi Farmers Market on School Street, which operates each Thursday from the first week of June until the final week of September, and the popular Parade of Lights in December.

John Johnson, who owns Ciao Bella Salon on West Pine Street with his wife, said he's upset that the DLBP board voted to close its doors shortly after collecting its annual assessments from Downtown businesses, but he believes it's his and other business owners' fault if they didn't attend the DLBP's monthly board meetings.

"If I knew in December they were closing, I would have contested the assessment," Johnson said. "I would have asked, 'Why do you need the money?'"

Erin Smith, a DLBP board member and owner of Scooters California Grill on West Elm Street, said that no DLBP money is going into anyone's pocket.

Watts said the 2012 bills have been paid, and the organization is current on all its payments. The DLBP has traditionally had cash-flow issues late in the year, she said. Bills payable late one year are paid the following February with dues payments made the previous month, Watts said.

"If it's a timing issue, what is the reason to disband the DLBP?" Johnson asked.

Tammy Blair, owner of Fashion Safari on School Street, said she's not expecting any leftover DLBP dues paid this year to be returned to business owners, but she said she wasn't upset about it.

And Cindy Della Monica, owner of Cheese Central, said it's too early to tell how the DLBP closing its doors will affect merchants.

"I'm assuming there is somebody who audits the books," Della Monica said. "Transition is never easy."

Business owners were assessed from $90 to $600 in dues annually, depending on the business's size, type and location, Watts said.

Although her employment as DLBP's executive director officially ended on March 1, Watts will continue to work on a contract basis until the books are officially closed. She doesn't recall how much she makes per hour on contract.

Watts' annual salary was $47,000-plus before she ended her official employment with DLBP, but she says she didn't receive any health or other benefits.

Dues paid by Downtown business owners generated about $40,000, and the city of Lodi contributed more than $24,000 toward the $130,000 annual budget.

The Farmers Market and Parade of Lights are the only DLBP events that made money, Watts said. Remaining special events to promote the Downtown area, such as Halloween- and Christmas-themed events, were subsidized by the group.

"It's different than just one business, which can just close their doors and walk away," Watts said. "We want to honor all our obligations and commitments, and make sure we do everything we can in the most upright way."

Schwabauer said that Watts never gave the city any indication that DLBP was in financial trouble in 2012, but Watts said the idea of disbanding was discussed during public board meetings the past two years.

"The money already got spent," Johnson said. "It's a little late now to complain."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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  • Doug Chaney posted at 9:44 am on Thu, Mar 21, 2013.

    advocate Posts: 499

    This dysfunctional organization needs to have a full audit of their books back at least seven years, ten if possible, and not by the bookkeeper, who I believe was, and maybe still is, franchiser/owner of one of those payday loan type income tax preparers to examine why the records kept by her were reportedly shoddy, especially for one who files income tax forms for thousands of residents for profit. I've been a party to the controversy surrounding the accusations of missing funds and shoddy bookkeeping and some are documented in the city council televised meeting archives. Mayor Mounce, at the time, was one who brought one of these episodes to the council's attention concerning a discrepancy of $17;000 from the beer sales at the weekly farmers market. When this issue was again brought back to council a short time later, it suddenly had a happy ending, seemingly when some of the funds were returned that entailed paying someone for vending the beer that was assumed to be a "volunteer". This is another instance of how the city council and good old boys take care of one another. When a certain restaurateur downtown complained about a seemingly typical issue about favoritism he was made the scape goat instead of the whistle blower who wanted to bring this problem to the public's attention. It's time this organization remove their banners, along with the merchants, from the light standards downtown. They seem to ignore the fact that it is illegal and must not even open their LEUD billing and read the literature, the last month a flyer in bold print: No Signs on Utility Poles Please, followed by attaching signage to utility, street light and traffic signal poles is a safety hazard and against the law. LEUD has ignored the emails, as well as the city manager and public works director, as well as the phone calls, so I guess the chamber of commerce, DLBP and city of Lodi are exempt from these laws?

  • Doug Chaney posted at 9:16 am on Thu, Mar 21, 2013.

    advocate Posts: 499

    Now that the dysfunctional DLBP has downtown Lodi flooded with wine tasting rooms and restaurant/bars, their real mission seems to have been fulfilled. All those would be empty store fronts are at least filled and the wealthy property owners are again raking in the dough. It seems no other small business wanted to take the chance of the floundering downtown business atmosphere and when the enterprise zone designation was given that area, the city made sure that the wine tasting room boom would start by granting Van Ruiten a $40,000 gimme government welfare check to open when it was rumored that they were afraid to lose a few bucks until the city of Lodi and its three amigos votes gave them $40,000 to cover some of their "fees". And I wonder how many other wine tasting rooms were given the same "welcome to Lodi" boost that Van Ruiten and his partner did. The DLBP is nothing more than a branch of the city of Lodi, like Tree Lodi, a non profit that seems to do only projects that concern the school district and parks of the city of Lodi. And the chamber of commerce is not much better, spending more time traveling to China to only promote Lodi wines and not bringing any businesses to Lodi with decent paying jobs and enterprise zone businesses, many locally owned by Lodi area "movers and shakers" only to front a business atmosphere to garner the $36,000 or so tax break it brings and seemingly nothing else.Until the city of Lodi can clean up its blighted east side and its scattered industrial/commercial areas, it will never attract any living wage jobs to this little town.

  • Jerry Bransom posted at 3:54 pm on Wed, Mar 20, 2013.

    Jerry Bransom Posts: 363

    Wasn't DLBP simply a self-serving entity anyway? An Ad Agency could do more with much less. I see too much of this these days. Rarely a day goes by where someone is trying to get me to pay for some association. Small business owners need to learn to see past the rhetoric and evaluate an association in terms of dollars, not some intrinsic value that is embellished by someone without the skills to operate a legitimate business (i.e. produces a tangible and valuable product or service).

    The Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau are the only two I think are worth the membership.

  • patrick crow posted at 2:44 pm on Wed, Mar 20, 2013.

    patrick crow Posts: 10

    Only a quasi-public agency could not see the lunacy of billing businesses knowing full well that they would not be able to fulfill those committments to same businesses. It's not the problem of the businesses that the DLBP was counting on assessments billed in 2013 to pay for expenses incurred in 2012. A real simple and ethical solution would be to assess the businesses for the pro-rata assessment that the DLBP provided services prior to going under. Right now, both the City of Lodi and the DLBP have some explaining to do. Any money collected from businesses should be immediately returned with a letter of apology.

  • Josh Morgan posted at 10:55 am on Wed, Mar 20, 2013.

    Josh Morgan Posts: 529

    Doug, you are absolutely amazing! I've never known anyone who has more knowledge about everything and anything than you. An expert in child care, adult day care, health care, water, small business, corporate business, government, politics, education, police, fire, air traffic control, etc., etc. Where does all this knowledge come from? Lodi is truly blessed to have a man of this intelligence in our midst. Thank you.

  • Doug Chaney posted at 8:36 am on Wed, Mar 20, 2013.

    advocate Posts: 499

    I do notice that this online article is missing some very important information from this same article in the Sentinel print edition that states that the revenue paid to this dysfunctional organization in January was used to pay off bills incurred in 2012, such as the office rental, utilities, and of course, Ms. Watts large salary. This newspaper article only says that her salary was $47,000 with a big plus after it and not the total compensation that she was awarded or paid herself. And that is in addition to the $24,000 the city of Lodi granted to this dysfunctional organization for what seems to be just more income squandered by this dysfunctional group. My believe is that many downtown merchants have been very disenchanted with his dysfunctional organization since its inception and many have been rumored to say that they were unlikely to pay their assessments because only certain merchants in the pecking order were getting all the benefits while those not so well connected were left behind. The controversy started years ago, even long before the matter with the misappropriated money, $17,000 I believe, was unaccounted for from the beer sales at the downtown farmers market, under the then director Mr. Easterling, which Mayor Mounce brought to the council's attention at the city council meeting. There was a small to do and never a clear explanation but somehow the matter was somewhat resolved and shortly thereafter Mr. Easterling resigned and the rest swept under the rug. Prior to that the person who have been doing the books for this organization had also been questioned several times about the methods in which she used for her accounting process and some of the results that were very questionable. I believe the same person was involved in the audits and present accountant at this time. I would think that being the owner of one of the bigger income tax filing franchises here in Lodi that the counting process through the years would be more than acceptable without as many controversies as this dysfunctional group has shown. The problem with this organization is that they're basically city connected and anyone that has challenged their controversial methods has seemed to have been made the scapegoat rather than one who had real concerns about the different issues that were very unethical, and maybe even criminal, and dismissed as just another person with merely a conspiracy theory that would demean or embarrass the director, staff, or one of the good old boys. It's not only time for this dysfunctional organization to be disbanded before that happens the DLBP books should be opened and are real audit, complete and not generic, should be done at least back to Mr. Easterling's tenure, or possibly even back to the accounting discrepancies that surfaced even before then.

  • Brett Thompson posted at 6:26 am on Wed, Mar 20, 2013.

    Brett Thompson Posts: 53

    This is a horrible action by the DLBP. It's no wonder that small businesses struggle to survive in Lodi when City-endorsed organizations are taking sums of money from them and giving nothing back in return. The City should be ashamed of this and somebody should pay these owners back.



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