ROCKLAND, Maine — Maine Lobster Festival officials expressed dismay Monday night after the City Council decided it no longer would waive the fees for the organization to use city property.
The council voted 4-1 against a proposal to waive $14,250 in fees for use of waterfront property, which has been the home of the city’s premier summer festival for 66 years. The vote came after festival officials pleaded with the council to continue to waive the fees as it always has done.
The 67th annual Maine Lobster Festival is scheduled for July 30 through Aug. 3.
Alice Knight, who has volunteered at the festival every year since 1972, said Rockland is better known for being the home of the Maine Lobster Festival than anything else.
Chuck Kruger, president of the Maine Lobster Festival Association, told councilors the association’s concern is that hundreds of volunteers might stop offering their time and service if the revenues went to the city government.
Kruger said many towns and cities would love to be in Rockland’s situation of having three premier festivals during the summer, and events such as the Maine Lobster Festival bring people into the community who spend money and tell others how great Rockland is.
The Maine Lobster Festival president said he understood how challenging it is to run a municipality, but the festival’s revenues also are down and expenses are up. He said he was not saying it as a threat but a reality that imposition of the fees could threaten the festival.
The Maine Lobster Festival contributes its surplus each year to community projects such as the purchase of Mildred Merrill Park, overlooking Harbor Park, where the festival is held each year. The festival also has donated for the purchase of firetrucks, paving of Harbor Park, and youth activities such as the recreation center.
John Jeffers, vice chairman of the Maine Lobster Festival board, said Rockland residents want a high quality of life and lower taxes. He said the festival helps the city achieve both through the people it brings into the city and the contributions it makes for city projects.
The festival made $39,740 in donations to projects in 2012, Kruger said Tuesday. In 2011, the festival donated more than $70,000. He said he did not immediately have available the amount donated in 2013.
After the vote, Kruger said the festival would have to reduce its contributions because of the vote, noting that the organization already had developed a budget for the 2014 Maine Lobster Festival. He said the festival would go on, but the board would have to re-evaluate its budget.
The city has charged the festival for direct services such as police and emergency medical services coverage for the past several years, but it had waived the $2,500-per-day fee for use of Harbor Park and adjacent Buoy Park and Mildred Merrill Park.
The city charges fees to the other two main festivals that use the city waterfront parks. However, Maine Lobster Festival officials pointed out that those festivals are run for profit while the lobster festival is a nonprofit organization.
The North Atlantic Blues Festival pays $3,300 for two days at Harbor and Mildred Merrill parks. Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors pays $9,800 for three days of using each of the parks as well as space on some of the city docks. The Blues Festival has used the city parks for the past 20 years and this will be the 12th year for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors.
Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson said the fees should be imposed on the Lobster Festival and the simplest solution would be for the festival to pay the fees and then reduce its contribution to the city.
“Rockland should make the determination on how it uses its money, not someone else,” Dickerson said.
Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said having the festival organization pay the fees would get rid of the political quagmire that comes up every year as the city tries to be consistent in not waiving fees.
MacLellan-Ruf said she has faith in the volunteers and expects they will continue to keep the festival going.
Councilor Frank Isganitis said there is an opportunity cost to the city in allowing the Maine Lobster Festival to use the city property, which therefore is not available for another activity.
“The lobster festival is a huge economic generator for this area. I look at this waiver as an investment in that economic generator,” Councilor Eric Hebert argued in trying to retain the fee waiver.
He said the city cannot underestimate the Maine Lobster Festival’s economic benefits.
On Monday night, the council also honored retired Rockland Fire Chief Charles Jordan Jr. for 25 years of service.
Councilors praised Jordan for his professionalism and creating a caring and compassionate public safety department.