An Independence City Council member is continuing to press for greater accountability in the city’s contract with the Independence Chamber of Commerce for the annual Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival.
“We need to have a clean account of what everybody brings to the table,” Council Member Curt Dougherty said Wednesday during a council meeting centered on the contract.
Other council members said it’s good to get those answers but also cautioned against micro-managing the chamber’s operation of the festival. They also stressed that the city’s expenses are well worth the festival’s benefits to the community.
The booths that local non-profits run to raise money sending Scouts to camp and feeding the hungry, said Council Member Marcie Gragg, “as a benefit to us as a community is fantastic.” There’s also the attention the festival brings the city and the economic impact of sales taxes paid and hotel rooms rented, but city staff said that’s almost impossible to fully measure.
The event is held on Labor Day weekend on the Square, and the chamber says it draws about 200,000 visitors a year. The chamber has a contract with the city that covers issues such as when booths go up and come down, who’s responsible for security at various times, parking, and electrical service for vendors.
City officials say the contract has changed little over the years but generally reflects the arrangements the city and chamber have worked out. Dougherty said that’s not enough and that residents deserve to know just what the city is paying for – and he expressed frustration that these are issues he raised last year.
“So I really am not happy at the fact (that) here we are again,” he said.
Mayor Eileen Weir said the city continues to look more closely at the arrangements with the chamber.
“I agree with you,” she told Dougherty. “I think it’s overdue.”
The council approves the contract every year, and it could be on next Monday’s agenda.
Line by line
Dougherty went through several specifics in the contract, raising concerns, including:
• The chamber is responsible for overnight security, when the festival is closed but dozens of booths and other facilities need a watchful eye. Who does the chamber hire, Dougherty asked?
Answer: Off-duty Independence police officers, whose pay runs through the city, though the cost – $18,245 – is paid by the chamber.
During fair hours, police work the festival on city time, a $17,000 cost to the city that Mayor Weir called appropriate given that it’s a large public event. That $17,000, she said, should be considered part of the city’s overall contribution to the festival.
• The contract says the city can ask the chamber for the last five years of records on Santa-Cali-Gon, something the city apparently has not done.
“Where’s our data showing the questions that I’ve asked,” Dougherty asked?
• Why is the chamber in arrears on its electric bill from last year?
Franklin “Kim” Kimbrough, the chamber’s president and CEO, said two things happened. First, many vendors indicated they would need only limited amounts of electricity but instead used a lot – a cost that fell to the chamber – plus the city’s rates went up and the chamber didn’t take that into account.
The festival also runs on a tight budget and, for example, there was an unplanned $5,000 security expense that the police demanded following the Boston Marathon attack last year.
“We just didn’t have the cash to make everybody whole at that time,” Kimbrough said.
After a recent payment, the chamber still owes $13,450, and it has a payment plan to get that debt erased by Aug. 1.
That didn’t sit well with Dougherty.
“Most citizens get their lights cut off if they owe $14,000 for a year,” he said, adding that the situation is “an embarrassment to the city.”
• Why does the city provide the equipment to clean up the large lot where the carnival is held?
“It’s not our carnival. We don’t get a cut off the carnival. It’s not fair,” Dougherty said.
Weir said it’s a matter of the city having the equipment, something the chamber wouldn’t be expected to have.
Kimbrough also emphasized that the contract was written by the city.
“And we’ve told them on numerous occasions, if you want to change it, change it,” he said after the meeting.
A tight budget
Kimbrough outlined the basic finances of Santa-Cali-Gon – and some new directions for the four-decade-old event.
There might have been a time, he said, when the festival was a major money-maker for the chamber, but that’s no longer the case.
“The last year it made money was 2008,” he said.
“We’re doing this as a community service,” he added. “We’re not doing this to make money.”
In fact, he said, the chamber has been in the hole financially with Santa-Cali-Gon. In 2012 – the year 30 hours of torrential rain wiped out Friday’s night’s events and greatly hampered Saturday’s – the event lost more than $100,000. Last year, due for unforeseen costs, it came close to breaking even but didn’t.
The chamber has fronted the money to cover those shortfalls, and, assuming decent weather and successful festivals, the chamber should be able to recoup that money over the next several years, Kimbrough said.
Also, the city puts money into the festival in a variety of ways. In 2013, it was a Santa-Cali-Gon sponsor, costing $12,000, something that gets the city’s name and logo on all sorts of promotional materials.
Then there are services such as health inspections required before any food booth may open. That took 263 hours of staff time, and the city puts that cost at $8,104. Also, the Fire Department is on hand for a variety of services, there are business license and electrical inspections, streets are barricaded, and safety fences go up. Those sorts of expenses last year added up to $57,747 in unreimbursed costs, according to the city. The chamber does pay for water, electricity and off-duty police, which in 2013 came to $32,948.
Kimbrough acknowledged that booth costs have gone up after several years of not being adjusted to keep up with costs.
“The expenses had outpaced revenue,” he said.
He added, “We’ve got a lot of folks who come back year after year, so it makes you think they’re making money.”
He also said the chamber is doing things to help vendors earn more money. There will be food courts, with seating, at the four corners of the Truman Courthouse starting this year. The chamber is renegotiating contracts for things such as ice and soft drinks as those contracts come up, aiming to control costs.
Other changes are being worked in, too.
“We’ve got to get back to our roots,” Kimbrough said.
Santa-Cali-Gon is short for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails, all of which started or passed through Independence, a major jumping-off point for settlers heading west in the decades before the Civil War. For years, the festival has done little to play up that heritage, and Kimbrough said that needs to change.
About 40 local non-profit groups – churches, service clubs, Scouts – have food booths to raise money, and Kimbrough echoed Gragg’s suggestion that’s what the festival is really about. The money raised helps people in the community year-round.
Overall, there’s more of an emphasis on local artists, local musicians and even local food providers.
“Local folks have to get something out of it,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it.”