Update: The County Commission this evening voted to delay consideration of the $284,000 website contract for two weeks, and requested a workshop on the item ahead of the next meeting.
The county administration is asking the Flagler County Commission this evening to approve a $284,000 contract for a website redesign and subsequent support for its tourism division. It is doing so after by-passing the Tourist Development Council, raising questions among members of the TDC, including Greg Hansen, who chairs the TDC and chairs the Flagler County Commission.
“I’ve got a list of questions I’m going to ask today because this was not something we discussed at TDC,” Hansen said this afternoon, two hours before the county commission meeting, which was scheduled for 5 p.m. “First time it came up was last week when I saw it in the back-up,” meaning the background material included with commission meeting agendas. But even that back-up was startling: it is a four-page document, including a brief memo taking up a few lines more than a page, and the rankings that showed the winning company after a bidding process. The back-up does not include the company’s contract proposal. It explains the costs in a single paragraph.
Ironically, the company the county is contracting with is called Simpleview. (See its proposal here.)
“Actually the costs are going to go down,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, comparing the proposed contract with the existing contract. “What you’re seeing is the total potential cost if we buy all potential add-ons to the base of the site, those are optimization costs.”
The proposal, says Amy Lukasik, director of marketing for the tourism department, includes an initial set-up of the site for $46,000, then recurring annual costs of $32,000 for the navigation and content-management system and a few other features such as the calendar of events, Google maps, and a booking engine, and $24,000 for search-engine optimization, the back-end part of websites that optimize individual content pieces, or articles, so they get a high rank on Google and other search engines’ results.
The content for the site, which includes two to three articles a month, is the responsibility of the tourism division’s staff, not the web company, which would only optimize that content. But at $24,000 a year for what would amount to at most 30 to 40 articles, the SEO charge is astronomical.
“They were about average with the other vendors, there were some vendors that were lower, some that were higher, that’s just what their costs are,” Lukasik said.
The proposal appears on the commission’s consent portion of the agenda—that is to say, on the portion of the agenda the commission approves wholesale, along with numerous other items, without discussing each item in turn, unless a commissioner or a member of the public requests that it be “pulled” for discussion.
Matt Dunn, director of the tourism department, said such contracts have not appeared before the Tourist Development Council in his recollection in the past. “Our production of media and our media buys have not gone before them in my recollection,” Dunn said. “Basically we take the annual budget to the TDC, typically I believe in August each year, I do have one on one meetings with them prior to that TDC meeting, but we do review the budget line item by line item.” He said the members do see the breakdowns ahead of time. “It’s not that they haven’t seen it, it’s that they haven’t seen this individual, potential vendor. But they are aware of the expense.”
The size of the contract is what startled a former chair of the TDC and current member.
“It is disappointing to hear that the Tourist Development Council was bypassed without hearing a presentation with such a large expenditure,” said Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, a member of the TDC and a former county commissioner who chaired the TDC. During that tenure, Holland and the panel put in place strict procedures on vetting contracts and proposals before they reach the commission. The procedures were deeply eroded soon after she left in 2012.
“The value and knowledge of these stakeholders appointed by the Commission, who are directly involved with the day to day operations in the tourism industry,” Holland continued, “is immeasurable and should be viewed as an asset to both the staff of the tourism office as well as the county. These decisions will have a direct benefit to the board members that serve on the TDC, therefore their input is even more important.”
Hansen said that he may ask for a delay in consideration of the proposal. The commission is not at full strength this evening: Commissioner Don O’Brien, who usually questions financial items closely, is out of the country.
The $284,000 contract, spread over a little more than four years, comes on the heels of a $130,000-a-year no-bid contract the commission awarded another company, Just Program LLC, for tourism-site web design and maintenance, two years ago. Just Program had been initially contracted in 2011 to host and maintain the website. In 2018, its cost rose to $143,000.
For all that, Flagler County’s tourism website doesn’t rate much in traffic measures, averaging 25,000 to 30,000 total visits per month (not unique).
The county has been spending large sums on website design, development and maintenance, for itself and two of its division: tourism and economic development. Aside from the more than half a million dollars it’s paid for its tourism website in the past five years, it twice paid for economic development redesigns ($50,000 in 2012, and $76,000 in 2015). In 2016, the county administration got the commission’s approval for a $30,000 redesign of its website, including maintenance for five years and a second redesign within four years.
Part of the selling point of the county website contract was that “a reasonable estimate of $1,200 per page was provided should the county decide to blend other sites such as TDC and the airport in the future.” The tourism website, however, is sticking to its own development and costs.
Palm Coast redesigned its website a few years ago. The cost: $0. It did it in-house.