LINCOLN — The creation of a new state agency to promote tourism came with a nearly 27 percent pay increase for the director.
But backers say that Kathy McKillip, hired last month as director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, deserves an $80,000-a-year salary, even though she supervises the same number of employees as when she headed the old Tourism Division of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Her salary in that job was $63,180.
Mike Kesselring of Crawford, chairman of the Tourism Commission, said that McKillip has assumed more responsibilities as an agency director and that the new job comes with higher expectations.
Kesselring, who operates the High Plains Homestead Drifter Cookshack and Bunkhouse, is one of nine representatives of the lodging and tourism industry who oversee the new commission.
Another tourism commissioner, Dana Markel of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, said McKillip, in her new job, is tasked with better coordinating the state's diverse tourism interests and increasing dollars spent on the state's third-largest industry.
“She is going to single-handedly lead the charge,” Markel said. “We have a pretty big agenda.”
The creation of a separate agency for tourism in Nebraska came as somewhat of a surprise last spring as the 2012 session of the Legislature wound down. Most state government reorganization efforts in recent years have focused on consolidating agencies, not creating new ones.
State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, who sponsored the tourism commission bill, argued that tourism promotion would be lost in a proposed merger of the Nebraska Departments of Economic Development and Labor. He also argued that the state's third-largest industry needed the extra push that a separate agency would provide.
The consolidation of Economic Development and Labor was ultimately rejected, though the two agencies are now run by one director, Catherine Lang.
A comparison with what surrounding states pay their tourism directors indicates that McKillip's new salary is slightly less but comparable.
In South Dakota, where tourism is a separate agency under the governor, the director gets $87,550 annually to supervise an $18.7 million budget and 75 full-time equivalent employees. That agency also includes the South Dakota historical society and arts division.
Tourism chiefs in Iowa and Kansas are paid $99,788 a year and $82,961 a year to manage divisions within larger state agencies.
The salary for Nebraska's new tourism director is comparable to the pay of three elected officials in the State Capitol: the state treasurer, state auditor and secretary of state are each paid $85,000 a year. The lieutenant governor is paid less, $75,000.
But McKillip’s pay is much lower than some other recently hired heads of state agencies, although they lead much larger operations than the Tourism Commission, which has eight full-time and 35 seasonal employees.
Jim Douglas, for instance, was hired at $112,000 a year in 2011 to head the 475-employee Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The new director at the Nebraska Department of Roads, Randy Peters, will be paid $140,000 a year to oversee an agency with a $674 million-a-year budget.
One comparably sized state agency, the Nebraska Arts Council, pays its director, Suzanne Wise, $83,071. She has been on the job 10 years.
McKillip served as director of Nebraska's tourism division for 13 months before being named in December the head of the new agency, which has a budget of $3.9 million a year. The tourism commission is financed by lodging taxes paid on motel/hotel stays.
Kesselring said that a national search for other candidates was not conducted because of costs and because McKillip was a “natural fit” due to her experience coordinating the state's new tourism plan. He said that a national search was done when McKillip was hired as chief of the tourism division in 2011.
McKillip's recent performance drew praise from the two state tourism commissioners. She launched an initiative this fall with the Nebraska Department of Roads to replace 37 aging tourism attractions along Interstate 80 and has scheduled a series of tours for travel writers and editors.
Said Markel, “I don't think I've ever met a better task-oriented professional than Kathy, and that's what we need.”
McKillip said that with tourism as a separate agency, functions such as accounting, human resources and legal services are no longer shared with a larger department and must be done by existing staff or contracted out. The Tourism Commission also has a separate office, on the first floor of the State Office Building in Lincoln.
“When you provide an opportunity like this, the expectations are high and the bar has been raised,” McKillip said.
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