State senator calls for performance audit of Pittsburgh tourism agency

PITTSBURGH — State Sen. Wayne Fontana of Pittsburgh sent a letter to the Allegheny County Controller asking him to conduct a performance audit of VisitPITTSBURGH, the nonprofit agency in charge of promoting tourism in the Steel City.

The agency relies on public funding from the Allegheny County hotel tax.

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Fontana told Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle that he decided to call for the audit because the agency is requesting a new tax revenue stream that would give them an additional $6 million per year on top of the approximately $8 million they already receive from the hotel tax.

“They need to be transparent and accountable to the public. If you’re asking for more dollars on top of what you already have, I think it’s time that we did something as far as a performance audit that says are you using this money in the most effective and efficient way possible,” said Fontana.

Fontana said the agency has more than 50 employees, and he wants to know what each and every one of those employees do. He also wants to know what the agency has accomplished. He told Earle he’s concerned about the possibility of duplication of services by other agencies, such as the Sports and Exhibition Authority. Fontana is the chairman of that agency and he said they just attracted several sporting events to Pittsburgh. He said the SEA is providing grant money to some of the organizations to attract them, and he said he wants to know why VisitPITTSBURGH didn’t attempt to attract these events.

“We as a sports commission found (them) and we’re donating to that. VisitPITTSBURGH didn’t find them or didn’t book them,” Fontana said.

The performance audit will also examine salaries. Target 11 investigated that a decade ago, when the CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH at the time earned more than $350,000 per year.

At the time, state Sen. Jim Ferlo and Allegheny County Councilmember Matt Drozd questioned why he was making that much money.

Ferlo claimed the region wasn’t benefiting from the agency.

“A lot of productivity is puffery, and I really think there’s a question about their ineffectiveness in bringing major conventions to the city for Pittsburgh, " said Ferlo at the time.

VisitPITTSBURGH denied the allegations and argued that the region at the time experienced its highest hotel occupancy rate, and saw an estimated $4.8 billion pumped into the economy by visitors every year.

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According to the most recent IRS filing from 2020, the current CEO made $277,000 and at least seven other employees were over $100,000 per year for 2020.

Controller Corey O’Connor told Target 11 that his office will conduct the audit requested by the senator.

“As taxpayers, we should see the bottom line and where every dollar went,” said O’Connor.

VisitPITTSBURGH sent a statement to Target 11:

“While VisitPITTSBURGH has not received a formal audit request yet, we have and always will continue to work with government agencies to safeguard the dollars designated for vital sectors, including tourism. We take the trust of these funds very seriously, and with them, we make investments that provide value to our stakeholders.

“VisitPITTSBURGH has gone through special audits previously. Additionally, each year, as mandated by our Board of Directors, the organization goes through an external audit to demonstrate fiscal efficiency and transparency on behalf of our partners and broad community,” said VisitPITTSBURGH President and CEO Jerad Bachar.

Fontana said this performance audit is different from the audits VisitPITTSBURGH is used to. He said it will not only examine balance sheets, but will also evaluate the agency’s performance.

The county controller said he will send a letter to VisitPITTSBURGH soon to advise them that he will begin looking at the agency and will also request information from them.

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