BANGOR, Maine — If the relationship between the city and the American Folk Festival is truly a common-law marriage, as some have described it, Monday’s workshop was either a mediation session or the beginning of a divorce.
During an awkward, well-attended two-hour session, city councilors asked many probing questions and offered some stinging criticisms to folk festival staff and board members about the proposed 2010 budget that was rolled out last week.
Councilor Pat Blanchette challenged folk festival representatives for failing to seriously consider staff cuts as part of their $140,000 reduction in expenses. Blanchette also asked the festival board chairwoman, Maria Baeza, why the city of Bangor — the festival’s biggest creditor — didn’t have a bigger seat at the table in terms of making decisions.
Baeza defended the board’s decision to keep the three-person staff intact and said the staff’s responsibilities will increase because of the budget cuts. She also said the board might be open to giving the city more decision-making clout but pointed out that the council already has two representatives on the board.
“We’ve all inherited this partnership, but it’s a partnership that enhances our community,” Baeza said, pointing out the festival’s significant cultural and economic impact to Bangor.
Perhaps the harshest critique Monday came from Council Chairman Richard Stone, who bluntly told Baeza and festival board treasurer Rick Fournier that the city simply might not be able to afford funding the event at its current level or at all.
Councilor Hal Wheeler took that one step further and challenged the folk festival board to come up with a budget that assumes either a reduced or an eliminated financial contribution from the city. Wheeler admitted that the city has complicity in the financial failures of the folk festival, but he said his bigger responsibility is to the taxpayers of Bangor.
Baeza, who at the beginning of the workshop said it would be impossible to imagine a budget that did not include contributions from the city, later softened her stance.
“We could do it without the city, but our desire is to continue a partnership that benefits both sides,” she said.
Other councilors, including Cary Weston and Rick Bronson, who represent the city council on the festival board, were more frustrated at the budget process than at the results.
“A partnership assumes we had a seat at the table, so it seems like some of these things should have been solidified prior to the [public] announcement,” Weston said, adding that the proposed budget took some things for granted, namely the level of in-kind services the city would provide.
At the core of the issue is a unique but undefined relationship in which the city has paid festival debtors in the past and was then supposed to be reimbursed with festival revenue. But the city has not always been repaid, and subsequently the festival built up debt that totals nearly $300,000 over five years.
The city has since cut off its line of credit, but the debt still doesn’t take into account tens of thousands of dollars worth of in-kind services that municipal workers provide the festival each year. City finance director Debbie Cyr projected last year’s in-kind contribution to the festival at about $154,000, a total some festival board members disagreed with.
Either way, Stone and others said it’s hard for the city to provide those services to the folk festival free of charge when no other event or entity receives that kind of treatment.
Blanchette, for instance, pointed out that taxpayers who cannot pay their bills are charged interest.
Another point of contention was the city’s support of the festival through appropriations by the Committee of Cultural Development. The festival has received between $72,000 and $85,000 every year for five years, but the recommendation this year is only $45,000 and the council may not approve that. According to Fournier, any contribution from the cultural commission would only be used to pay down the festival’s debt to the city anyway.
He also made the point that if the city wants to see its debts repaid, the festival needs to continue and generate revenue.
When the dust settled from Monday’s meeting, no decisions were made, but a general feeling of uneasiness filled the City Council chambers.
Stone said the City Council would meet within the next week to outline its intended role in the 2010 festival and any subsequent festivals and then present that in the form of a council order.
The council’s decision about the level of support the city plans to provide could require the folk festival to create a new budget.