Debate over the costs of the Secret City Festival—and whether the city can afford a $160,000 “party” every year—was briefly renewed again on Monday.
The sometimes-rancorous debate came up as the Oak Ridge City Council considered whether to approve two resolutions laying the financial foundation for the June 2014 festival.
Early in the debate, Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn moved to reallocate the Secret City Festival money and use it instead for a school resource officer in each middle school, or two SROs total.
But Council member Charlie Hensley said Baughn was essentially asking the city to take money it would collect from festival sponsors and use it instead for SROs.
“I think that’s fraudulent,” Hensley said.
Citing a lack of support, Baughn withdrew her motion.
“But we have got our priorities completely out of whack,” she said.
Baughn expressed disappointment that Oak Ridge could, she said, afford a 10 percent pay raise for the city manager, “magically found” $250,000 for a recent school system shortfall related to state maintenance-of-effort requirements, and on Monday, spent $125,000 for a car wash that the city didn’t need—but only has one SRO for eight schools.
“Can we afford a $160,000 party?” Baughn asked, referring to what she said was the festival’s net cost.
One $150,000 resolution, approved 4-2 on Monday, allows the city to contract with the Arts Council of Oak Ridge to provide entertainment, production support, activities, and programs for the Secret City Festival and reimburse the nonprofit organization for its costs. The costs are included in next year’s Secret City Festival budget, and funding for the contract will be offset by sponsorships, ticket sales, and event vendor booth fees, said Josh Collins, Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks director.
The festival is presented by the city, the Arts Council, and the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau. Collins said the contract with the Arts Council reduces municipal staff time spent on securing services, preparing contracts, and processing performer invoices.
The second $50,000 resolution allows the city to be a festival sponsor, with the funds drawn from the Recreation and Parks Department’s Special Events account, Collins said.
He said this year’s festival received $141,500 in sponsorships, including the city’s $50,000 contribution, and the event generated about $205,000 in revenue, including sponsorships, admission/booth fees, and sales. Another roughly $15,000 from the 2012 festival increased the bottom line to about $220,000, Collins said.
But Council members Anne Garcia Garland and Baughn pressed for more details on the festival’s costs. Garcia Garland has also asked for more information in the past, including in employee time and services. She said the festival is “lovely,” but it should be self-supporting and residents need to know what it costs.
“They need to know what we’re spending,” Garcia Garland said. “We do spend a lot on this festival outside these two resolutions.”
Baughn, who was elected in November 2012, said she was not on council when the last cost report was issued.
“We do not know the bottom-line cost to the taxpayer of this event,” she said.
During the debate over the $150,000 contract, a few Oak Ridge officials and council members said the city itself was not spending the money.
“If we don’t raise the money, then we have to make cuts,” said Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller, who plays a key role in the festival each year. “It’s sponsorship money; it’s not city money. The city is not on the hook for $150,000.”
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said he needed more specific details on what spending or other information council members were requesting before he asked his staff to gather more information on costs and employee hours—and he needed a vote expressing the will of council before proceeding.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to pull some of this together,” Watson said. “If you want more information…provide me that request in a vote and say, ‘Go get all of this detail.'”
A few council members seemed satisfied with the information they had previously received.
“Just because one or two or even three council members request something, I don’t think that means that the council as a whole needs this information,” Miller said.
“I’m the last person that is going to ask the city staff for a whole bunch of information for various witch hunts,” Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley said. “Any significant request ought to come in from council.”
Watson said the city knew the approximate cost of the festival. Collins elaborated, saying the city collected $220,000 and spent $197,000 during the 2013 festival.
Baughn objected to Watson’s request for a vote before collecting additional information.
“I find it very ironic that you take issue with using staff time to get information of transparency that should be made available readily to the taxpayers, but you don’t take issue with spending $170,000 in salaries and man hours for this one festival,” Baughn said. “I don’t understand why you need a vote from council to account for taxpayer money.”
The first Secret City Festival resolution passed 4-2 Monday, with Baughn and Garcia Garland voting no. Oak Ridge City Council member Chuck Hope was absent.
The second resolution passed 5-1, with only Baughn voting no.
“I support the Secret City Festival,” Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said. “I think it’s one of the finest things that we do.”
He said the community enjoys it, and it builds good will and generates good publicity.
“Communities all across America do these kinds of festivals as part of what they do—the quality of life,”Beehan said.
“I think it’s a great event,” Oak Ridge City Council member David Mosby said. “I don’t think you can buy that kind of regional value or marketing for less than we are paying.”
Council could consider the festival costs later in a work session.
Note: This story was last updated at 12:40 p.m. Dec. 20 to correct the vote count on the second Secret City Festival resolution. Council member Anne Garcia Garland voted for that resolution. Oak Ridge Today apologizes for the error.
The City Council agenda is available here.
A video of the meeting is available here.
Philip W Nipper says
I believe the festival is a good thing for the community and we should continue to have it. I also believe that the taxpayer should be made aware of the costs involved. If the city has not incorporated the development of financial reports into the mix, then I feel they have been remiss in their duty to the public. It should be a normal function of the city to formulate simple spending reports when tax payer funds are utilized for events such as the Secret City Festival. We should all know how much was earned or lost, and who spent what. I don’t believe that is asking too much.
I think one of the questions that was unresolved Monday was how much detail should be included, whether the information should include only the amount of money that flowed through the Secret City Festival account or whether it should also include such information as how much the city spent on man hours.
Council was split on whether more information is required.
I watched the council video again. The Secret City Festival section starts at about 32 minutes, and at about 54 minutes, Josh Collins said the city annually provides information on sponsorships, ticket sales, and merchandise. He gave some bottom line numbers for the 2013 festival on Monday, and he said the city could provide information on employee hours spent on the festival.
Anne Garcia Garland said the council got an accounting last year of what money flowed through the Arts Council account for the festival, but members did not receive an accounting of what the city spent in man hours and electricity.
How much information do you think should be included? Do you think the accounting should include employee hours, electrical costs, employee benefits, etc., or do you think an accounting of the money that flows through the Secret City Festival account is sufficient?
Philip W Nipper says
John, I don’t think we need to get way down into the weeds and include costs for electricity, water, employee benefits, etc. However, I think employee hours including any overtime costs involved or any special funding say for unplanned costs on the part of the city would satisfy most folks.
Thank you, Philip.
Andrew Howe says
I re-watched that council meeting. One thing to point out is that I never really heard any ‘absolute’ explanation of the $150K. If I understood what was said by various people, we got a few explanatins:
1) The city pays up to $150K. If the fest fails to raise the needed $150K, the city will pay the difference
2) $50K of that WILL be given to the festival, no matter, and the other $100K is promised to be given if needed
3) Something about this being sponsorship money and not even from the coffers, implying the city would pull the grant monies and then pass them to the festival?
4) Something about it being sponsorship money so “If we don’t raise the money, then we have to make cuts…. The city is not on the hook for $150,000.”. What? That would imply the city doesn’t need to be involved and this whole issue is moot.
Despite this specific confusion, there’s a general problem at hand here. Change of guard may require a change of protocol.
I think it’s really obvious now that there are members of council and members of the community who are consistently requesting hard financial data (and other metrics): proof of return on investment, budget breakdown, stats, etc.
One of the things I’ve noticed in general at council meetings is the lack of such data. I’ve been very surprised at times at the lack of even the most basic data. Such as the absence of “this is what the Fest cost us last year, this is how the expenses break down, how much the city contributed, how much grants were raised”, etc.
I recall many pieces of data being requested during the special meetings to discuss the new landlord program: home counts, people counts, home type breakdowns, list of problem areas, landlord counts and metrics, etc. I don’t believe any of that was ever provided before decisions were made, although I could be wrong about that.
I believe the City Manager and council might do well to make it known that if something is to go before council it needs to be accompanied by the relevant information to justify it and to make an informed decision upon it.
Otherwise, well, you’re kinda flying blind (and without much IFR – wink to Charlie).
Oh, and since this week my habit has been to discuss other issues from the meeting, not related to the article at hand, here’s today’s non-sequitur:
We heard that monies were not raised to afford other SROs. Well, last I remember hearing about the SRO issue was there would be desk space made available at the high school and a few officers would work from that location. Did that fall through as well? If so, why?
Sam Hopwood says
Excellent points Andrew. You are on a roll. Please consider running for city council in 2014.
Andrew Howe says
Was at the high school today and officer Scott from ORPD walked by, so I got the skinny on the SRO situation.
No movement forward on putting offices for officers at ORHS.
Presently, officers stop in at the schools and walk the halls as part of their daily routine.
I asked him if any officers were especially keen on working the schools and he said there were a number of officers looking forward to that opportunity.
Basically, it’s budgetary obstacles, as we were told at the CC meeting.
Thank you, officer Scott, for being so forthcoming and friendly. Be safe on the streets.
Sam Hopwood says
My understanding was that the schools Super agreed to supply office space for three officers at ORHS and the police chief agreed to that also. I am puzzled as to where the lack of funding comes into play here.
I have added a poll to the end of this story, asking whether you think the Oak Ridge City Council needs more information on the cost of the Secret City Festival.
Anne Garcia Garland says
In the interest of being clear, I voted FOR the $50,000 sponsorship for the festival. I had no expectation that the $150,000 guarantee to the Arts Council would fail to pass but I did want to make the point that we do not have a regular cost accounting system that gives us an accurate picture of what the city spends on the festival. Mr. Watson has told me more than once that he thinks such events should become self-supporting and I would like to see a plan to that effect. In addition to the employee hours that are not included in the cost of the festival, this part of the story, “Collins elaborated, saying the city collected $220,000 and spent $197,000 during the 2013 festival” demonstrates a point that was difficult to follow during the discussion. Of the $220,000 “collected,” $50,000 was what the city had donated as sponsor. But the amount “spent” was not $197,000. Lacking employee costs, we don’t really know how close the festival is to break even. I would just like to see a complete accounting each year and a plan to become self-supporting. And I would like us to have an accounting system that would allow us to do that for any program we support. We bill events that originate from outside Oak Ridge or raise funds to be spent outside Oak Ridge for the participation of city services (police, fire, public works.) How do we arrive at those costs and billing rates?
Thank you, Anne. I updated the story to reflect the correct vote count. I apologize for the error.
David A. Vudragovich says
I see talk about the ticket sales and vendor fees for a booth.
Do the vendors collect sales tax?
Is there an easy way to see if the rest of the city has an uptick in sales (and sales tax revenue) that weekend?
And other more subtle benefits like more hotel rooms booked, local employers have extra staff on hand aka more hours on the employee pay check, and other side benefits for the community.
I agree it is a good draw and publicity for Oak Ridge and would hate to see it go by the wayside.
Dave, I don’t have the answers to your questions, but perhaps the city, Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, or Arts Council might know.
Levi D. Smith says
I really don’t see much point in the Secret City Festival if they’re not going to have the battle reenactment. The concerts never interested me, since they always featured acts from way before my time. Those always seemed to reenforce Oak Ridge’s image of being in the Stone Age. It would be interesting to know the cost of similarly sized events at locations such as Market Square in Knoxville.