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.